The cost of new voting security in South Carolina
Your right to vote is threatened in South Carolina.
That's the message of a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Columbia against the S.C. Election Commission, its members and Marci Andino, the commission's executive director.
South Carolina's thousands of digital voting machines are antiquated, break down, leave no paper trail of votes that can be audited, and have "deep security flaws" that make them vulnerable to hacking by Russians and others, the 45-page lawsuit alleges.
"By failing to provide S.C. voters with a system that can record their votes reliably," the Election Commission has deprived South Carolinians of their constitutional right to vote, the lawsuit says.
Andino said Tuesday she had no comment on the lawsuit, which she had not yet seen.
However, she said the Election Commission is aware of the urgent need to replace the state's voting machines, all nearing the end of their expected 15-year life cycle. The commission already has some $10 million that can go toward the up to $50 million replacement cost.
"We have been trying to get funds from the General Assembly for the last six or seven years," said Andino, who wants to replace the current machines by the 2020 presidential election.
The lawsuit aims to force the state to replace its touch-screen machines, bought about 2005, with new machines that have paper backup systems and are more secure from hacking. The state paid about $34.5 million at that time to buy an initial 11,300 machines.
The lawsuit was filed by Phil Leventis, a former longtime state senator from Sumter, and Frank Heindel, a Mount Pleasant businessman who has filed numerous Freedom of Information requests seeking information on how the state's voting machines work.
Leventis and Heindel, who the lawsuit says have voted regularly for years, are represented by Victoria Eslinger, a lawyer with the Columbia-based Nexsen Pruet law firm, which is working on a pro bono basis. Pro bono means the law firm is handling the lawsuit as a public service, free of charge.
The lawsuit says that over the years, numerous breakdowns of the iVotronic voting machines that the state uses have occurred, including most recently in the June primary in various machines in Greenville, Horry, Marlboro and Florence counties.
Moreover, computer experts have concluded the iVotronic system "is plagued with vulnerabilities that undermine its reliability," the lawsuit alleges. A 2013 Legislative Audit Council report also concluded the machines were subject to breakdowns and could not produce a "voter verifiable paper audit trail."
The lawsuit also notes the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reported in May that Russians launched cyber-attacks on election commissions in at least 18 states. Machines like those in South Carolina are "at (the) highest risk" for hacking, the suit says, noting top Trump administration officials have warned Russia will try again this year to interfere with U.S. elections.
Leventis said he hopes the Election Commission and the Legislature, which would have to appropriate the money for new voting machines, will take speedy action on their own rather than be required to do so by a federal judge.
Nothing is more important than a safe and reliable voting system, Leventis said. "The real foundation of state government is the elections that put people in office," who go on to make decisions for the people.
Andino said legislators know about heightened concerns nationally surrounding voting machine integrity. Meanwhile, the Election Commission works with the FBI, SLED, Homeland Security and other agencies on security, she said.
There has been no hacking into the state's voting machines since they were put in use in 2004, Andino said. But, she added, "It's time to change the system."