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Old voting machines blamed for some Election Day problems. Will SC replace them?

The cost of new voting security in South Carolina

South Carolina voters can be assured your vote is safe from hackers just in time for the 2018 midterm elections
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South Carolina voters can be assured your vote is safe from hackers just in time for the 2018 midterm elections

Voting equipment that’s older than the first iPhone is being blamed by some election officials in South Carolina for some problems voters experienced on Election Day.

State and local election officials are calling on S.C. lawmakers to pay up for new voting equipment in time for next year’s local elections to head off any further issues that could arise during the next general election.

“Most of our issues that we had on Election Day were as a result of the age of the equipment,” said Rokey Suleman, Richland County’s elections director. “We desperately want to have this (new) equipment and run it through the fall elections in 2019, because if we implement it for the first time in presidential preference primaries, which are going to have high turnout, or in the presidential election, it’s going to have an impact.”

South Carolina’s current voting machines were purchased in 2004. The first iPhone was released three years later.

Some voters in Richland and York counties on Tuesday complained of the touchscreen voting machines changing their selections when they pressed the screens.

One woman in Lake Wylie said her voting machine changed her vote for U.S. House representative six times before poll workers moved her to a new machine.

Some of those issues were happening because of calibration issues with the older machines. Though machine calibration can be fixed at the polling sites, those issues are happening more frequently as the machines age, York County elections director Wanda Hemphill said.

“All election officials are in agreement that the system needs to be replaced,” Hemphill said. “It’s showing its wear.”

The State Election Commission plans to ask state lawmakers for $60 million to go toward buying 13,000 new voting machines that officials hope could be in place sometime in 2019 ahead of the presidential primaries, said Chris Whitmire, a spokesman for the election commission.

“Elections are too important to wait until you see any kind of catastrophic failure to decide to replace,” Whitmire said.

In any election, there will be problems that can’t be blamed on the age of technology, Whitmire and Suleman said.

Human and logistical errors — such as wrong codes being punched in machines, equipment being delivered to wrong places and poll workers not showing up — caused some problems Tuesday that had nothing to do with old technology, Whitmire said.

“It’s easy to blame all of the issues on the age of the system, but that’s not the case in every situation,” he said.

Nevertheless, Whitmire said, South Carolina’s 14-year-old equipment is near the end of its expected lifespan, and updated technology could help improve elections.

A $60 million request for new voting equipment is not too much “when you consider the fact that people don’t believe that their vote counts,” said state Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, who sits on the House’s budget-writing committee. “Making sure that our votes count is the centerpiece of democracy.”

A lawsuit against the State Election Commission filed in July by the nonprofit group Protect Democracy alleges that South Carolina’s voting machines are antiquated and vulnerable to hacking.

After this week’s elections, South Carolina’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to State Election Commission Director Marci Andino asking her to demand the state legislature fund new machines.

“We have a legislature that is loath to spend money,” said Susan Dunn, legal director for the ACLU of South Carolina. “We’ve been trying to do government on the cheap for so long. (Voting equipment) is part of the infrastructure of democracy. This is as important as bridges.

“We’ve kicked this can down the road as long as we can.”

One thing local and state election officials, along with the ACLU, are looking for in new election equipment is a paper trail behind all votes. South Carolina is one of only five states whose voting systems do not include a paper component to audit vote totals. A paper trail increases election security and voter confidence, officials say.

Rutherford said he also is interested in exploring alternative election systems to improve the ease and efficiency of voting, such as Oregon’s system of mailing ballots to all eligible voters.

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