This is another in our continuing series of Q&As with members of the Executive Committee of the GCDP. Jake Erwin is the voter protection chair for GCDP and SCDP. We asked him about the fairness and security of our elections. Erwin is an attorney, a former public defender, who now has his own law practice specializing in criminal defense and personal injury in Spartanburg. He is a graduate of Clemson University and the University of South Carolina School of Law. He’s also a musician with a passion for politics and, in addition to his work with the GCDP, he produces the Podmetto Politics podcast with Jarrod Wiggins and Chris Fedalei.
Q. Describe the role of the voter protection chair in broad strokes, please?
As voter protection chair, my primary obligation is to coordinate with volunteer poll watchers and attorneys to ensure that election laws and procedures are followed on Election Day. Hopefully this helps lead to every vote landing where it was intended to, and everyone who wanted to vote getting to. In addition to being the county VP chair, I am also part of team that runs voter protection on the state level for SCDP. For the midterms, I helped devise the game plan statewide, and supervised the Upstate region on Election Day.
Q. South Carolina is the only state in the country where the same voting machines are used in every county, every precinct. Was this a good decision or not? And, are we stuck with continuing to do it this way, or do you see a chance for counties being able to make their own decisions going forward?
Machines fail, in ways that are both expected and unexpected. Hopefully, there are procedures, devised and executed by human beings, in place that can minimize the impact of these failures. I think this is true in any field that utilizes technology, and elections are no different. I don’t really have a problem with all of the machines being the same, as I don’t think having a variety of machines in the field would change this underlying truth one bit. I expect it actually could complicate things. Additionally, I have no faith that individual county decision makers would make smarter decisions than those on the state level.
Q. How likely is it that we will have new voting machines by November 2020?
The Election Commission has made it clear that this is necessary. Democrats in the statehouse have made it clear this is a legislative priority. However, per usual, Republicans control both the Executive and Legislative branches of our State government, so it is up to them. While I have had conversations with Republican lawmakers in which they expressed a desire to replace the machines as soon as possible, I think it would be surprising to see a Republican controlled legislature spend a dime of state money on a problem that is mostly theoretical.
Q. What types of systems may be under consideration and how secure do you think they are? Are you a proponent, for example, of paper ballots with optical scanning/digital backup?
I am far more concerned with voter suppression and disenfranchisement than I am with the equipment. Sure, the outdated touch-screen machines break down too often, and some of that could be avoided by using paper ballots (but, of course, we all remember the difficulties in Florida during the Bush/Gore recount). There is no perfect election, and no fool-proof method of accepting and counting votes. I am much more interested in the boring stuff: Are the precincts in poor, mostly black neighborhoods supplied with enough backup machines to replace them quickly? Are the volunteer poll-workers following proper procedures with every voter, or are racial and socioeconomic biases guiding their interactions with voters? Are voting locations that have changed from prior elections properly publicized and marked? These questions, while not as sexy as those about hacking and cybersecurity, I think have a far greater impact on the fairness of elections in South Carolina.
Q. Is it likely that the state will have true early voting by 2020 or at any point in the future? What can we do to make that happen?
We have early voting in everything but name in our “in-person absentee” voting. Any expansion or improvement of that system would come through legislation, and to this day I have yet to hear of a single Republican lawmaker in favor of expanding early voting. So, if we want that to happen, we could elect a legislature full of Democrats.
Q. How secure is my vote in Greenville County?
I am not convinced that a single vote in Greenville County has been changed or lost because of malicious action. In that sense, your vote is secure. Most people do not vote, and those in power want it to stay that way. That’s the real problem.
Q. Taking all issues together from cybersecurity, to social engineering on internet platforms, to voter suppression, how vulnerable is our election system in SC?
I am not at all concerned about a cyber attack on our election infrastructure. Social engineering on the internet is a plague on our society, but I think that problem goes far beyond election integrity (and, frankly, politics at-large). Our voter-ID law disproportionately affects minorities and poor folks and I am convinced that it, like all voter-ID laws, was designed that way. In that sense, the integrity of South Carolina’s vote is beyond vulnerable: it is already deeply compromised.