Are new paper-backed voting machines in our future? Not so fast

By Jake Erwin
Voter Protection Chair, South Carolina Democratic Party

For many Americans, election integrity is a major concern. Given what has been learned about Russia’s attempted manipulation of our voting process (not to mention the blatant social engineering carried out to the benefit of our current president), it is easy to imagine a nightmare scenario in which our electoral process is hijacked by those with bad intentions.

Despite the anxiety-inducing scenario, it is important to note that there have been few, if any, documented occurrences of votes being changed by outside actors physically manipulating machines or the networks that support them.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, there were nearly 150,000 attempts to penetrate South Carolina’s voter-registration system on election day in 2016. After this onslaught, the South Carolina Election Commission had the state’s National Guard cybersecurity team, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and a private cybersecurity firm all do assessments of our electoral systems’ vulnerability to cyber attack.

There were only four devices used by the Election Commission that were reported to present potential vulnerabilities. The voting machines themselves are not connected to a network, and are theoretically safe from what is traditionally thought of as hacking: a shadowy figure dressed in black, their face lit only by the blue glow of the monitor as lines of codes fly by on the screen.

Last month, a lawsuit was filed in federal court claiming that South Carolina’s voting machines are antiquated, unreliable, and vulnerable to the point of infringing upon our voting rights. The first run of these machines, now numbering over 13,000, were bought by the state in 2005 at a cost of $34.5 million. The manufacturer claims that the machines have a functional lifespan of 15 years, but the lawsuit alleges that the machines have failed many times over the years. It should come as no surprise that the legal battle to force the state to replace the machines is being lead by Democrats. Former State Senator Phil Leventis, a Democrat from Lexington, is one of the named plaintiffs in the suit.

Brennan Center attorney warns LWV about election vulnerabilities in SC

Election security infographic

The lawsuit is a longshot effort to ask the federal government to force the state to spend more money on improving election infrastructure. The South Carolina Election Commission requested $20 million from the legislature in budget talks earlier this year, but ultimately was only given around $4 million. An additional $6 million in the form of a grant from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission helps, but still leaves our state far short of what would be necessary to ensure election integrity. The South Carolina Election Commission estimates that the cost to replace all of the voting machines in the state would be around $50 million.

With all of this in the air, one cannot help but see the situation as quite grim. But Democrats should strive to handle this situation better than Republicans have when faced with their own ideas of electoral crisis. Many on the right rant and rave about voter fraud, and politicians like Kris Kobach of Kansas have made the idea that there are thousands of votes cast illegally by either non-citizens or imposters and therefore more restrictions on voting access are necessary their signature issues. Notwithstanding all that noise, all credible studies of the issue have shown that almost all allegations of fraud turn out to be baseless. There are virtually no documented cases of this kind of voter fraud. Let us instead turn away from hysteria, and seek intelligent and measured solutions.

One effective means of ensuring election integrity is for the State Legislature to step up and support the SC Election Commission with funding they have requested to upgrade our system and research safer alternatives.Democrats are generally more favorable to this plan, so the work GCDP is doing supporting our elected officials and seeking to elect new Democrats is crucial.

With the state of our current technology, the most effective route to a fair election is robust monitoring of voting locations. In South Carolina, each major political party is entitled to an observer in each polling location on election day. The South Carolina Democratic Party will be partnering with every county party to organize poll watchers with the goal of having every polling location in the state monitored, with rapid response in place for potential issues. Contact if you are interested in participating in this effort, or just watch your email for more information from GCDP.

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