Sunday’s editorial is the second of our two-part series on the problems and possible fixes concerning the state’s voting machines:
Horry County voters are familiar with the frustrations of electronic voting machines. During the 2008 elections, many local voters found machines at their precincts that simply didn’t work or which acted up throughout the day. Thankfully, we didn’t see a large-scale repeat in 2010, but the problem is not a new one nor one that will likely fade away completely. Even before the voting process in 2008 annoyed many, the state persisted in using its iVotronic machines despite a 2007 report from Ohio that said the system was so unreliable that it should simply not be used for conducting elections.
S.C. voters ended up with these machines almost a decade ago, after the state decided that it would make sense to move to a statewide system rather than the piecemeal operation in place previously, in which voting methods and machines could vary from county to county. We can’t argue with that logic. We just wish we could place more trust in the system the state chose.
Duncan Buell, a computer science professor at USC and voting machine expert, co-authored an independent audit late last year of the state’s 2010 election. That report concluded that the state’s election system has “enormous room for improvements” and the system in Horry County in particular, among a handful of other counties, “failed catastrophically” in 2010.
So what’s to be done? The obvious answer would be different voting machines, or at least ones that allow some sort of paper trail that provides voters with more reassurance that the machine they’re using has tallied their vote. A 2008 study determined that retrofitting Horry County’s current machines with paper-receipt printers would cost $700,000. We balked at the time at the steep cost, but if we can’t have more faith in the current contraptions, safeguarding the sanctity of our vote may be worth that money after all.
Buell also offered the intriguing idea of a machine that would generate a paper printout of the vote, to be saved as part of the official record. At the same time, for the sake of efficiency and speed, the machine could scan the printout and add it to its internal memory. Such a machine would offer both the opportunity for double-checking the paper record after an election and the speed of a computerized count. Unfortunately, there’s no indication that anybody is manufacturing such a machine.
Barring brand new machines, software updates to the current machines could help. Buell characterized the programming quality of the iVotronic machines as “a good, but not a great, high school science project.” In general, he said, the software “is just unacceptably bad,” riddled with security holes.
Finally, better training and contingency plans for when things don’t go right would be a big help in itself. The current election system is set up on the assumption that everything will work if nothing goes wrong, a remarkably short-sighted policy for the real world. As soon as a harried election worker makes a mistake during the chaos of election day, errors quickly pile up, and there seems to be little if any backstops in place to catch these understandable slipups.
When the voting machines have glitches of their own, there is also an unacceptable lack of standard policy across the state, an omission that needs to be addressed. The report Buell worked on found that “there is no official statewide procedure for determining what constitutes a ‘vote’ when the machines report that their stored data is not reliable.” Instead, the state just leaves it up to local election officials, who may or may not understand how the machine works.
Furthermore, officials do not have to record the reason for their decision in these cases, a lack of transparency that should be changed. In 2010, for instance, one machine in Horry County reported an error alerting officials that its internal memories, in which vote totals are recorded multiple times as a backup, were no longer consistent. One or more votes were saved in one instance of the machine’s memory but not in another. An election official or officials chose at some point which voting record to use. We have no record, however, of how that decision was made.
These sorts of guessing games are simply not what should be taking place in our voting booths. As we enter a very busy election year, it’s past time to make sure that our voters have confidence that the votes they cast will be counted.