Politics & Government

SC takes first step toward switching to paper ballots in 2020

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

S.C. election officials took a small step Tuesday toward changing the way the state votes in 2020.

The S.C. Election Commission requested $60 million Tuesday from legislators to buy a new voting system in time for the next statewide election, a system that — for the first time in a decade — would produce a paper trail of ballots cast.

The Election Commission has requested money for new voting machines before and been denied. However, this request comes in a favorable budget year amid national concern around election security.

State lawmakers have said they want to make a switch to paper-trail ballots in time for the 2020 election, using money from $1 billion in added state revenues.

But there will be hurdles to overcome. Gov. Henry McMaster unveiled his budget proposal Tuesday and included only $5 million for new voting machines.

Marci Andino, director of the Election Commission, told S.C. House budget-writers Tuesday that the commission has requested proposals for a new voting system. It would replace the state’s more than 13,000 touchscreen voting machines, now 14 years old.

“The system’s been used since 2004-05, and it’s reached the end of its life,” she said.

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All the options on the market now use a paper-ballot option, Andino said.

Some allow voters to fill out an old-fashioned paper ballot and run it through an optical scanner. Others use a touchscreen device but also print out a paper “receipt.”

“You would never leave with the piece of paper,” Andino said. Instead, the paper ballot-receipt would be counted by an optical scanner.

A print-out option would be preferable, the director said, because the touchscreens would be familiar to voters and would create cleaner, uniform ballot markings. But her agency will look at cost and how long the next system is expected to last.

State Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, said he was open to any change that would increase voters’ confidence in election results.

“You know I’m a tightwad, but we can’t put a price on elections,” he said.

Andino said the state only has about $5 million set aside in a reserve fund to buy new voting machines. The Election Commission also received a $6 million federal grant last year to improve election security, which it will put toward buying new voting machines.

Andino also pointed to a U.S. House proposal that would require a nationwide transition to paper ballots.

The Election Commission also requested $2.2 million to operate the 2020 presidential primary, but that sum only would cover a Democratic primary. If President Donald Trump faces a Republican primary challenger, the cost could rise to $3.4 million.

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Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.

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