Guest editorial: Speed update of state voting system

June 1, 2018 GMT

The General Assembly recently turned down a request from the State Election Commission and Gov. Henry McMaster to expedite the replacement of the state’s aging voting machines, providing only $4 million of a $20 million request to get going on a project expected to cost about $50 million over two years. With heightened concerns over election tampering, lawmakers should reconsider their decision as soon as possible.

Even if all of the funding was provided next year, the earliest South Carolina voters would have access to the new machines that produce a paper trail of their votes would be the November 2020 general election. The state is unlikely to have the new machines in time for the 2020 presidential primaries or other contests held before that time.

That’s the prediction Chris Whitmire of the State Election Commission recently gave to The Post and Courier. The Election Commission says the existing system, which does not provide an auditable paper trail, is nevertheless secure from tampering over the internet. Not that some people do not try. The Election Commission reported that 149,832 unauthorized attempts were made to access the South Carolina voter registration system on Election Day in 2016, at least some of which were likely malicious in nature. (Others may have been innocent mistakes, by elections officials for example.)

The problem is that the security of the votes we cast in South Carolina is nevertheless below the level recommended in the latest best practices issued in response to Russian attempts to hack into election databases and technology in at least 21 states during the 2016 election cycle. Most notably, South Carolina is one of only five states where voting machines do not provide a backup paper trail of the vote.

The Senate Intelligence Committee recently released a report on the security of the nation’s election systems, which are and should remain the responsibility of state governments.

The Intelligence Committee predicted that Russian efforts to compromise state election systems can be expected again this year and in 2020. It recommended that the federal government improve its efforts to monitor attempted attacks and take earlier action than in 2016 to alert state authorities of suspected hacking attempts.

The report found that hackers linked to Russia succeeded in accessing the Illinois voter registration files but made no changes. It also found that a number of other states had voter files that could have been hacked. But it found no evidence that any votes where changed.

To minimize the risks of further attacks on state elections systems, committee recommendations included that voting machines produce a paper trail and be incapable of connection to the internet directly or via Wi-Fi.

It also recommended that the federal government increase spending to help states. South Carolina will receive $6 million from the federal Elections Assistance Commission, Mr. Whitmire said. But efforts in Congress to increase federal elections grants are stalled, so that may be all South Carolina can expect from Washington.

The Senate report found that many states are not spending adequate sums to upgrade election technology and improve the security of voting and data systems for the 2018 elections and subsequent contests. South Carolina should not be among them.

— Post and Courier, Charleston