Improve election staff’s performance

  • Posted: Sunday, March 31, 2013 12:01 a.m.

A s expected, a comprehensive review of electronic voting machines used in South Carolina revealed problems with their operation. But the state Legislative Audit Council’s findings also showed that many of the problems attributed to the machines were actually caused by the people who are responsible for their operation.

State and local election officials should concentrate their initial efforts on improving the skills of those who conduct our elections. And in some cases, the improvements should begin with the appointed members of county election and voter registration boards.

And, in the absence of a system failure, the expense of retrofitting the state’s electronic voting machines would be better applied to a new system. The cost of retrofitting — an estimated $17 million — is more than half the original cost of the machines.

The audit cited scattered problems associated with wear and tear on the voting machines, as well as random mechanical breakdowns and battery failure. But many of the problems cited in recent elections could be “largely categorized as human errors rather than mechanical errors,” the audit found.

Those include incorrect programming, improper screen calibration, failure to provide an adequate number of machines at certain polling places, and human error in the vote tabulation process.

The audit also noted shortcomings in election security, largely due to failures to apply consistent safeguards statewide, regularly change passwords for system access or keep up-to-date inventories of voting equipment.

The LAC urged counties to perform post-election audits as a matter of routine, before the votes are certified. That will increase accountability, and will determine where problems exist and how they can be corrected.

In her response to the audit, State Election Commission director Marci Andino agreed with the findings and said the agency would commit to improvements, including better training for election officials.

Meanwhile, the governor’s office and the commission need to cooperate to make sure that members of county election and voter registration boards are qualified to make policy and oversee elections.

The LAC found that 24 counties have election or registration officials who fail to meet statutory requirements for training and certification. Under state law, they should have already been removed from office by the governor.

In a response to the audit, a spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley said that lists of those officials provided by the State Election Commission have included inaccuracies. Consequently, clarification has been sought before acting on their removal.

Clarification must be a long time coming. The audit council “found no evidence that county election commissioners and voter registration board members have been removed or replaced when they fail to comply with certification and training requirements.”

Reform of the election process should start at the top, and that means discharging officials who haven’t done the requisite training they agreed to undertake when appointed by the local legislative delegations.

Eventually, South Carolina’s voting machines will have to be either retrofitted or replaced. The audit acknowledges one fundamental shortcoming of the machines, purchased in 2004. They don’t provide a paper tally that can be used to check election results with greater assurance.

But the audit notes that a paper tally doesn’t necessarily provide a voter with a “receipt” of his or her vote, as desired by some critics of the current system.

Nor should it. That feature has a number of potential problems, including voter fraud and intimidation, additional costs and long delays in voting.

While the League of Women Voters of South Carolina has called for the voting system to be replaced, Ms. Andino says the Election Commission “remains confident in its accuracy and reliability.”

She adds, “When the time comes, the system will be replaced with the most advanced voting system available.”

The state is committed to follow federal standards for voting systems. But those standards haven’t been upgraded since 2005, and the board created to do that is virtually moribund, the audit reported.

The state needs to assess whether waiting for revised federal standards is preferable to proceeding with the purchase of an upgraded voting system.

But the state can begin making improvements now in education and training to reduce the level of human error that has played a large role in recent election woes.

And that could be done at little extra expense.

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