When S.C. voters whittle down the list of who will become their next governor on June 12, election officials want to ensure their voting information is protected from attacks – including Russian hackers.
State election officials are asking the Legislature to give their agency $250,000 in added money so they can make any needed changes to the state’s voter registration system and its network if voter information is compromised.
“Security has always been important to us,” said spokesman Chris Whitmire of the S.C. Election Commission, which is asking for a total of $24.9 million in the state budget that starts July 1. “But, certainly, things changed in 2016 with the emerging threats that were out there.”
‘They were blocked’
In 2016, Russian hackers tried to gain access to millions of the country’s voter registration records.
In South Carolina, election officials told lawmakers that on Election Day there were 150,000 attempts to gain access into the state’s voting system, which secures information on roughly 3.2 million registered voters.
Those attempts did not just come from hackers, Whitmire said. Some of the attempts could have been from bots, researchers and private companies looking to make money off the state by catching gaps in its voting system, elections officials have been told
Russian hackers also could have been behind the attempts, Whitmire said. “But the takeaway is they were blocked.”
The state’s voting system is electronic, supported by a paper component at each precinct and county election office.
Whitmire said the system regularly is scanned by the federal Homeland Security and state Administration departments. The state also works with the S.C. National Guard, the FBI and county information technology employees.
South Carolina is one of 31 states that get regular cyber scans of its voting system.
“States have taken a number of steps to secure elections, and DHS has made it a priority to support these efforts,” Homeland Security spokesman Scott McConnell said.
Those scans did find weaknesses in all county voting offices and at the State Election Commission after the 2016 attempts to access information on S.C. voters.
Soon after, S.C. election officials hired the Charleston-based cybersecurity firm Soteria to fix the problems. Whitmire wouldn’t say where the holes were.
“But that’s why we want a steady funding stream,” he said. “If and when we identify things – which I believe is inevitable because of the ever-changing environment of cybersecurity – we want funding to be able to make those changes immediately.”
S.C. voting system ‘reaching the end of its life’
It’s not only the state’s voting network that soon might need upgrades.
Election officials also worry about the life left in the state’s aging voting system.
The State Election Commission is asking the Legislature to set aside $20 million in the 2018-19 budget to replace the state’s voting system. It also wants an added $4 million for ongoing maintenance to the state’s current system.
The state bought its current voting system in 2004. The more than 13,000 voting machines have an expected lifespan of 15 years.
Now, legislators budget $1 million a year to cover the cost of buying a new system, Whitmire said. But in June, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission is expected to approve new voting system standards, and the state must abide by them.
A new voting system likely would come with improved technology.
Since 2004, Whitmire said touch screens have improved and so has the overall voter experience. For example, there are new voting systems that will scan a bar code on a sample ballot printed from a voter’s computer and pull up the candidates that the voter previously selected at home.
“That’s definitely not something that would have existed 14 years ago,” Whitmire said, adding that a new system also could cut down on the time it takes to vote.
The state’s current voter system works and is reliable, Whitmire said. But, he added, “It’s reaching the end of its life.
“We’re trying to prepare for replacement before the voting system starts becoming less reliable. When that would be, I don’t know.”
Securing the SC vote
S.C. election officials are asking legislators to set aside $24.9 million in the 2018-19 budget to help better secure the state’s voting system and buy new voting machines. What’s at stake?
Registered voters in South Carolina
The year South Carolina bought its current voting system
Attempts to gain access into the state’s voter registration system on Election Day 2016
SOURCE: S.C. Election Commission