If your smartphone battery dies, it’s frustrating, but you can find a land line somewhere. Or if your car’s backup camera goes down, you can always turn around and look out of the rear window — the way it was done in the early 2000s.
But if the vintage 2004 voting machine on which you cast your vote goes haywire or, worse, records your vote wrong, your options are much more limited, especially in South Carolina where electronic votes are not backed up by a paper trail.
And with foreign powers eager to interfere with our elections and some U.S. politicians casting doubts on the integrity of our elections, South Carolina must not put off any longer replacing its aging, trouble-prone voting machines with new ones that use the most sophisticated security capabilities and efficiency available.
The machines used in South Carolina have a life expectancy of 15 years. That means it would be irresponsible to count on them for voting in 2020. Indeed, state election officials have been asking legislators for six years to find the money for 13,000 new touchscreen machines – the kind that produce paper records. Lawmakers have set aside $5 million, but that’s only a small step toward the $65 million price tag.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, has said he expects the money will be allocated from $177 million left over from the 2017-18 fiscal year. And, he said, new voting machines should be up and running for the general election in 2020. His colleagues would make a big mistake if they fail to back him up.
Election officials insist that the midterm votes were recorded accurately, if not always efficiently. Batteries died and had to be replaced, and fraying electrical cords needed to be bandaged. In addition to causing longer waits for voters, the repairs and maintenance are expensive.
Particularly troubling to voters and officials are problems with calibration, which are becoming more common. If a screen’s display is out of alignment, a voter’s touch may select the wrong candidate. Voters can catch the error right away or as they review their votes before confirming them. But even with these protections, voters can lose confidence in the machines. That is unacceptable. All who vote should be confident that their vote is being recorded accurately — a high bar to attain in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere.
Nobody likes spending money to replace a roof or an air conditioner, but roofs and air conditioners wear out or break down. So do voting machines. It would be tempting to spend the $65 million on roads and bridges, school buses or cybersecurity. But our constitutional right to vote is the foundation on which all such government programs are built, and it must be secure.
Another group of lawmakers on Tuesday pitched a far less expensive option: paper ballots. Besides costing less, this method also would allow for a check of the actual ballot cast if there are any discrepancies or a recount is necessary. The Legislature should consider this suggestion as well before making a recommendation to state election officials.
If the decision is made to go with new machines, they alone won’t be enough. Election officials, poll workers, voting machine attendants and computer technicians must be thoroughly trained to maintain them and to detect problems. They must know how to determine if a security breach has occurred, plan for dealing with electricity, phone or computer disruptions, report problems promptly and conduct post-election audits.
Research has shown for years that voting systems are often susceptible to malware, prone to failure and impossible to audit. The director of national intelligence also reported on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, prompting Homeland Security and election officials around the country to beef up security.
But a major part of that effort will have to be replacing voting machines that are out of date and vulnerable to hacking. The sooner South Carolina allocates the money, places its order and prepares to use new voting machines, the more secure our crucial democratic voting process will be.