Friday’s editorial applauds the ongoing state audit and study of our voting machines, which we’ve often complained about in the past:
When South Carolina voters head to the polls to vote for president on Nov. 6, the outcome is not expected to be particularly close. But if it were, or if a state or local race comes down to the wire, how confident would we be that the paperless voting machines we use got the outcome right?
For most of us, the answer is mostly confident. Probably confident. About 90 percent or so. Is that enough?
After all, these are the same voting machines that have drawn complaints for their lack of paper receipts since their state-mandated rollout in 2004. This is the voting system that a 2007 Ohio study concluded was “buggy, unstable, and exploitable” with numerous security flaws. It’s the same system that in 2010 led to 183 votes becoming misplaced in Horry County and thousands more in other counties. The iVotronic system that South Carolina uses has been referred to in the past as “the Ford Pinto of voting systems.” The machines really started to gather criticism after the 2010 primary, in which unknown Senate candidate Alvin Greene mysteriously shot to victory by running up big margins on voting machines though he trailed in the same counties’ paper absentee ballots.
These are the same voting machines that acted up in Horry County during the 2008 elections, forcing many to resort to paper ballots instead. It’s the voting system that “failed catastrophically” in 2010, according to an audit of that election by the S.C. League of Women Voters. States have been warned in the past that the machines’ touchscreens, if not calibrated correctly, can record the wrong votes. And even if calibrated correctly, researchers determined it only takes somebody with a “Palm Pilot and a small magnet” about one minute to maliciously recalibrate the screen to block votes for a candidate. They’re the same voting machines that University of South Carolina computer science professor Duncan Buell characterized as having programming that “is just unacceptably bad.”
And yet, these are the voting machines that we’re stuck with, at least for another election.
In the face of all of those complaints and concerns, it’s great news that the state’s Legislative Audit Council is mounting a comprehensive review of the state’s system.
As the Post & Courier’s Stephen Largen reported last month, “The probe will include evaluations of whether the roughly 12,000 machines used in all the state’s 46 counties are reliable, if the training provided to election officials is adequate and possible alternatives to the iVotronics in use since 2004.”
That probe won’t be done before the upcoming election, but that it is being done at all is good news. S.C. citizens have cast their votes too long on blind faith that these machines work as advertised. A comprehensive study by the state has been overdue and we will eagerly await its results.
The state’s current batch of voting machines are already more than halfway through their expected life expectancy, and upgrading the system could cost as much as $15 million. Better poll worker training and more standard and rigorous post-election audits could also help improve the integrity of the current system. But we’ll need to change at some point. The manufacturer of the machines, Electronic Systems & Software, stopped making them about a few years ago, so as populations grow, machines break and new ones are needed, the state is buying refurbished machines from other states. Horry County, for example, has bought used machines from N.C. vendor PrintElect.
It’s unclear when the audit council’s report might be finished. And a $15 million price tag for a better statewide voting system – if that’s what auditors deem necessary – may seem steep. But in a state that has spent the last year frantically worried about preventing voter fraud, it doesn’t seem too much to ask if that’s what it takes to ensure that the vote we cast on election day is the same vote counted on election night.