Politics & Government

Federal push to update voting machines like South Carolina’s is heating up

U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina
U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina The State/File

Federal efforts to fund new voting machines in states including South Carolina are gathering steam, but some advocates say state officials should be doing more.

Several U.S. senators voiced support for the Secure Elections Act, which would allocate more money to states looking to increase the security of their elections systems, which help South Carolina.

The Secure Elections Act has five co-sponsors, including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca. A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-Charleston, said Wednesday he supports the push as well, calling it a “positive step forward.”

“As we continue to learn lessons from the 2016 election, Senator Scott believes it is critical we move forward with efforts to secure voting systems across the country and fight intrusion attempts by bad actors from around the globe,” Ken Farnaso, Scott’s press secretary, said in an email.

Wednesday's hearing of the Senate Rules Committee, the second of its kind, comes a day after a lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in South Carolina alleging the state’s 14-year-old voting machines are vulnerable to hacking, undermining South Carolinians' right to vote.

South Carolina is one of five states that uses voting machines that don’t produce a paper trail. That makes the machines uniquely vulnerable to hacks, since there is no record that can be used to audit electronic results, some experts say.

“Paper ends up being a wonderfully robust kind of backup and safeguard against cyber attacks,” said Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan. “It may seem retrograde, but it’s not.”

Larry Schwartztol, counsel at Protect Democracy, said the S.C. Election Commission should be doing more than awaiting money from the state Legislature or from the federal government to buy new voting machines.

“Seeking funding for an overhaul is good, but they should be taking immediate action, including exploring financing arrangements with vendors for paper-based systems, like Virginia did when it decertified paperless voting machines two months before the 2017 election,” Schwartztol said.

Marci Andino, executive director of the S.C. State Election Commission, said such an overhaul is “not practical.” Virginia’s overhaul affected about 6 percent of that state’s voting precincts, according to The Washington Post. A similar effort in South Carolina would affect every precinct and machine in the state.

Andino has replacing the machines could cost up to $50 million. In May, the state received approval for a $6 million federal grant to update its machines, but it hasn’t yet received the money, Andino said. Those federal dollars were accompanied by $4 million from the S.C. Legislature.

As a result, the opportunity for updating the state’s paperless voting machines by November’s midterm elections closed, Andino said. But officials still are aiming to have it done for the 2020 contest.

The state’s change to its current voting system took about a year, meaning that, ideally, South Carolina would secure its funding by February 2019, since its presidential primaries will take place in February 2020.

At Wednesday’s hearing, voting machine vendors disagreed with the idea that selling paperless machines, like the ones used in South Carolina, is irresponsible.

“We support local choice. If local choice is for a paperless voting system, then we do provide that,” said Peter Lichtenheld, vice president of voting machine provider Hart InterCivic.