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Politics of hacking in South Carolina: Will it sway your vote in ’14?

In the coming months, South Carolina Democrats and their likely candidate for governor, Vince Sheheen, will remind voters that their personal data was stolen under Gov. Nikki Haley’s watch.

At risk is your identity, credit rating and personal piece of mind, the message will go.

“Her department failed to follow basic security precautions, and data security positions were not even filled to protect our most sensitive information,” Sheheen, a state senator from Kershaw, told The Post and Courier in summing up how the theft was allowed to happen.

Haley, meanwhile, will counter that the work her administration has done in the 10 months since the hacking will make the state alone at the top in terms of system protection.

The breach, she said, “we were all surprised about.” But “if you look at where we are going to be a year from now, it will change the face of South Carolina. We will be the most secure state in the country, and we’re going to keep on going until we keep it that way.”

Heading into the 2014 elections, the state is on new and arguably cyber-strange ground as to whether the security breach at the Department of Revenue will play any noticeable role in a gubernatorial race.

The personal data of about 5.7 million individual current and former taxpayers (i.e., potential voters) and 700,000 businesses — including bank account and Social Security numbers — was compromised in a massive hacking first made public in October.

So far authorities say it is doubtful that any of the identity theft cases that have surfaced in the state since then are a direct result of that breach. But the culprits, believed to be from inside the former Eastern Bloc, are expected to be patient, waiting for the right opportunity to strike.

How this will play out in a governor’s race is anyone’s guess, given that the state already leans strongly Republican. The Haley-Sheheen race is a rehash of 2010 (Haley won 51 percent to 47 percent), and there are other seemingly more pressing matters on the table, such as health care, road needs and a looming presidential race.

And perhaps even more in Haley’s favor now than a year ago is that reports of people being either victimized — having their bank accounts cleaned out or dealing with identity theft issues — have not materialized in noticeable numbers.

In that vein, the mess may not nearly equate to the Hurricane Floyd evacuation debacle that left thousands of drivers stranded on Interstate 26 in 1999, pinning the fiasco label on then-Gov. Jim Hodges.

“If there aren’t any personal tragedies as a result of this, then it’s not really that interesting,” said College of Charleston political scientist Kendra Stewart. Without a relatable victim, the impact also may be too hard to turn into a campaign theme, she said, “especially when it comes to issues that are somewhat technical and not easy to understand, and that’s what category this falls into. In some ways it’s a story that was handled well. People can handle a crisis if it’s handled well.”

Democratic hopes that the hacking will be a game-changer should be viewed skeptically, another expert in Southern politics said. The matter is more likely to be drowned out in the media mud that goes with an election rather than take a place front and center on voters’ minds, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said.

“Let’s face it: South Carolina voters are used to problems and scandals by now,” Sabato said.

Hacking, he said, doesn’t have the easily digestible elements of sex and money that have influenced other political races in recent years.

“This one is manageable since it isn’t personal,” Sabato said.

But Sabato said the issue remains legitimate campaign fodder and could play a role if things get close.

“Of course, she can say, ‘It’s happened to the NSA and the Pentagon, too.’ But a governor is responsible for everything that happens on her watch,” he said. “Those are the rules.”

Doug Pardue contributed to this report. Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.

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