If the Russians show up again this election season, South Carolina wants to be ready.
Earlier this month, election officials from all 46 counties sat down with federal officials from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to plan possible responses to election hacking attempts in the run-up to November’s election.
It was the first time federal law enforcement agencies have led such a statewide training exercise, playing out different scenarios on how malicious actors could try to break into South Carolina’s election system ahead of November.
“It forces you to think fast,” Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the S.C. Election Commission, said of the two-day seminar. “They say, ‘X is happening. What’s your reaction?’ And before you’re done with that, ‘Now Y is happening.’”
South Carolina was one of several states that dealt with attempts to hack into its voter registration system before the 2016 election. Given Russia’s high-profile efforts to influence the outcome of the presidential race in 2016, federal and state officials are doing more to keep South Carolina’s elections secure this year.
Training stressed the importance of avoiding “phishing” attacks that could infect computers through a link or email attachment. Whitmire said similar training is required every six months for anyone who can access sensitive voting sites or networks.
Rokey Suleman, Richland County’s election director, was impressed with the seminar.
“Cyberattacks are much more at the forefront in South Carolina,” Suleman said. “Where we’re really lacking is that our voting equipment needs updating.”
South Carolina currently has $15 million set aside to replace its outdated voting machines, which, unlike in most states, don’t include a paper-trail component. But Whitmire estimates $50 million will be needed to replace the state’s 13,000 machines, purchased in 2004.
A lawsuit filed last month says the machines are so dysfunctional that they violate the right to vote for citizens.
Even without updating the voting systems, Homeland Security will be visiting each county election office to review how securely voting machines are housed. The machines aren’t networked and only could be tampered with manually.
Other election features in South Carolina are also a concern. McClatchy recently highlighted the vulnerability of overseas ballots to hacking when they are sent electronically.
South Carolina is one of 30 states that allows that option for overseas voters. Whitmire says officials are looking at ways security can be improved for those voters, but argues the Election Commission can’t refuse to accept electronic votes under state law.
“Overseas citizens can be disenfrachised by remote locations and lack of dependable mail,” he said. “There’s some risk involved. But if you take it away, they would be disenfranchised.”