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Editorial: Security improvements for South Carolina elections are welcome news

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Presidential Primary (copy)

Signs at Board of Election and Voter Registration office to help voters find polling places. File/Wade Spees/Staff

South Carolina’s new voting machines that leave a paper trail for audits and cannot be hacked remotely get their first workout Oct. 1 in a special election in Aiken County, and will be operable in all precincts around the state by November. But that’s not the only welcome improvement in the state’s election security. Others address training in cybersecurity for election workers and include frequent tests of the vulnerability of state systems to intrusion.

These upgrades, a response to the ongoing threat posed by Russia and other foreign adversaries, are the product of a fruitful collaboration between the federal government and the states. The federal Election Assistance Commission provides an information clearinghouse for best practices and also certifies voting machines and associated hardware and software. The Department of Homeland Security keeps states up to date on the latest security threats. The states receive federal grants to help defray the added costs of enhanced security.

This collaboration, which recognizes the constitutional authority of states to decide how elections are held, could be improved. For instance, senior state elections officials should be able to receive classified national security information regarding threats to their elections, something current law does not allow.

But the elections security bill passed by the U.S. House on a party-line vote in June and now pending in the Senate would upend the federal-state relationship for improving election security by putting the federal government in charge of telling states in great detail how to run elections. Some of its proposed instructions might actually make things worse.

For example, the bill requires paper ballots that can be marked and scanned by the use of electronic systems just like the 13,000-plus new machines that cost the state $52 million. But the bill also says states that install them must also allow voters to mark ballots by hand on demand, something not offered in South Carolina except on absentee ballots.

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We still believe that it would have been much wiser for South Carolina to adopt a system of hand-marked paper ballots with scanners in each precinct. Such systems have proven to be just as fast (in some cases faster) and accurate as machine-based voting, and the significantly lower cost would have allowed our state to purchase enough equipment to reduce the voting lines that now result from too few voting machines in many precincts.

But we also believe that choice of hand-marked or machine-marked voting systems should be left up to the states, not mandated by Congress.

House Republicans tried and failed to amend the House elections bill to allow state elections officials access to secret information from Homeland Security about threats to their systems and to soften the bill’s mandates.

Even though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi outrageously denounces him as “Moscow Mitch” for holding up the House elections bill on the argument that he is helping Russian hackers, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is doing every state a major service in calling for more balanced and better focused legislation to help cope with the increase in election security concerns.

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