S.C. lawmakers are working to limit the State Election Commission’s authority to buy new voting machines, amid concerns over the projected cost and the commission director’s longtime relationship with a possible vendor.
House budget writers Wednesday decided to transfer the State Election Commission’s money to buy new voting machines to the state’s Department of Administration, which would hang onto the money.
The State Election Commission still can pick the voting machines to be purchased this spring — after an evaluation of the bids by a panel of state and county election officials.
But lawmakers are working on a joint resolution to give the State Fiscal Accountability Authority — made up of top S.C. elected officials — the authority to approve or veto that decision.
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“We feel like there needs to be some more oversight and the process needs to be a little bit more open,” said state Rep. Kirkman Finlay, a Columbia Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee. “A lot of vendors, a lot of individuals, a lot of groups have contacted us and felt it was moving a little too quickly. With something like voting machines, we need to make sure everybody is included and everybody gets a shot at it.”
The State Election Commission has asked lawmakers for $60 million to replace all 13,000 of its 14-year-old touchscreen voting machines by 2020. The new machines will create a paper trail of votes cast. House budget writers have agreed to pony up most of that — $40 million — in next year’s budget.
The current machines have been criticized as antiquated and dysfunctional. The League of Women Voters released a study in January that found the machines counted some votes twice and counted some other votes for the wrong candidate during the 2018 election.
Critics of the commission, including some lawmakers and the league, say the state could move toward unhackable paper ballots at less than half the current projected cost — about $25 million.
“We have seen no evidence (the commission) is giving hand-marked ballots serious consideration,” said Lynn Teague with the league.
However, State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said the agency’s request for proposals allowed for hand-marked ballot systems.
He also said the agency is committed to a “fair and open process” in buying new machines. “We’re focusing on the big picture, keeping our eyes on the goal (of replacing the machines),” he said. “This doesn’t change that.”
Lawmakers also are concerned about the perception of State Election Commission director Marci Andino’s relationship with one of the possible vendors bidding to sell the state new voting machines. The State reported last June that Andino had accepted nearly $20,000 in expenses during her decade as an adviser for Nebraska-based Election Systems and Software.
Andino cleared her role on an advisory board for ES&S with the state’s ethics office before she joined the panel in 2009. She quit the vendor’s advisory board last year before the state requested bids for new machines. She said she will not take part in selecting the winning bid.
“I’m just trying to make sure the process is beyond reproach,” said state Rep. Murrell Smith, the Sumter Republican who leads the House’s powerful budget-writing committee.
Whitmire said Andino’s role with ES&S — the vendor for South Carolina’s current voting machines — was never an ethical problem. She joined the advisory board, along with elections officials from other states, to learn more about voting machine issues in other states.
“Working with the vendor does not create a bias,” Whitmire said. “We also expect to work with whichever vendor is selected in this process.”
The deadline for bids to supply the voting machines is March 14. However, lawmakers are working to push that date back to give bidders more time.