COLUMBIA — The relationship between South Carolina's director of elections and the country's largest voting equipment company has caught the attention of lawmakers as the state prepares to spend a proposed $60 million to replace 13,000 voting machines.
For more than a decade, Marci Andino, executive director of the S.C. Election Commission, served on an advisory board formed by Elections Systems and Software, known commonly as ES&S.
Andino received more than $19,000 worth of flights, hotels and meals from ES&S since 2009 to attend regular conferences at the company's headquarters in Nebraska and other cities across the country, according to records with the South Carolina Ethics Commission.
Andino was offered a spot on that private panel in 2005, according to other documents provided to The Post and Courier. It was a year after ES&S won a contract to supply new voting equipment to the Palmetto State and two years after Andino became executive director of the election commission.
The company continues to service that technology in all 46 counties and is one of only a handful of companies expected to submit a bid this year to provide a new generation of voting machines, which lawmakers hope will include a paper ballot trail.
On Monday, Andino confirmed she stepped down from her advisory position with the company last year in anticipation of the state requesting bids for a new voting system. She promised her connection to ES&S would in no way impact the state's decision over which company wins the multimillion dollar contract.
Andino said she will not be taking part in selecting the winning bid.
"We are running a clean procurement process and we're proud of that process," she said.
Some of the lawmakers advocating for a new voting system in South Carolina worry Andino's connection to ES&S could cause the public to question that relationship, especially if the company is awarded another state contract.
"I think if we're not careful it gives the appearance — and underline that, the 'appearance' — of a conflict," Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia, said. "The director should avoid any and all involvement in the solicitation of bids."
Andino pointed out she has been transparent about her relationship with ES&S for years. She provided The Post and Courier with a 2005 opinion from the state Ethics Commission that cleared the way for the company to pay for the hotels and plane flights she received each year.
"This is acceptable as long as your service on the advisory board is not being offered to influence an official action, such as renewal of a contract, but is offered as a cooperative effort to improve the election process," wrote Herbert Hayden, executive director the state's ethics commission at the time.
The meetings Andino attended for ES&S, she said, were educational and often included relevant information, like briefings from U.S. Homeland Security officials. The gatherings, she added, provided her direct access to the company's executives to discuss ongoing issues with existing voting equipment in South Carolina.
Gov. Henry McMaster's office does not believe Andino's ties to ES&S should stand in the way of her overseeing the search process for new polling equipment.
"We have no reason to believe that Ms. Andino should refrain from participating in this process," said Brian Symmes, McMaster's spokesperson.
The governor's new picks for the election commission, Symmes added, would "never allow an outside group or company to have any sort of undue influence over the commission’s actions."
In many ways, the ES&S conferences highlight the limits of the state's ethics laws in South Carolina and mimicked the corporate-sponsored trips that the state's utility regulators received in past years. The Post and Courier revealed those utility-backed conferences in cities and beach resorts after requesting travel records from the state's comptroller general.
Andino isn't the only state or local official to be courted by ES&S. McClatchy and The State Newspaper revealed last year how the company recruited dozens of election officials to attend meetings in places like Las Vegas.
The revelations of ES&S's recruitment of election officials as advisers sparked outrage elsewhere in the country.
In New York City, it prompted the city's Board of Elections to distance himself from the company. In Pennsylvania, the state's auditor general opened an investigation into voting equipment purchases after one county official was named as an attendee at the Las Vegas event.
ES&S views the advisory conferences as a way to listen to the needs of election officials, said Monica Tesi, director of marketing and proposals for the company.
"The ES&S advisory board provides members the opportunity to hear each others' perspectives on voter and elections administrator needs, to share best practices with each other, and to learn about federal updates," she said.
Advocates for ethics reform in South Carolina don't see why a private company needs to pay for hotels and plane flights in order to receive input from state officials.
"I do not believe that it is appropriate for election officials to sit on boards for election equipment developers," said Lynn Teague, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters who has championed ethics reform and the push for new voting machines statewide. "They could provide user feedback without being on an advisory board."
Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, said he's concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest with any government official or agency head. But it's even more important, he said, when it deals with the state's election system.
"It doesn't smell right. It doesn't pass the smell test to me," said McElveen, who wants the Legislature to play a larger role in ensuring the state selects a paper ballot system. "We need to not only avoid impropriety in the procurement process, but the appearance of impropriety."
The new system for millions of South Carolina voters is expected to be chosen by this summer.