Editorial | In Search of a Vote of Confidence

April 3, 2013 

Well, at least we know we’re not crazy. We’ve been complaining for years about the voting machines used in South Carolina, pointing out that they’re – in the words of a 2007 Ohio study – “buggy, unstable and exploitable.” We’ve seen batteries fail, broken or misprogrammed machines delay voting and votes go uncounted in Horry County. If this is really the best option South Carolina voters have right now, it’s time to start thinking about other options.

After an in-depth look, the report issued by the state’s Legislative Audit Council late last month concluded the system in use in our state does suffer from various maladies reported throughout the country, including votes that were counted multiple times, votes that disappeared (one Florida county lost 18,000 votes in a 2006 election), machines that broke down on Election Day, screen calibration issues, missing candidate choices, frozen screens, and unsecure or faulty programming.

Before you conclude that voting just isn’t worth the bother, however, it’s important to point out that none of these issues so far has been blamed for changing the outcome of an election. And while frustrating and unsupportable, the glitches are also largely fixable.

Many of the system’s issues are simple human, not machine error, and could be solved through better training and quality control. In Horry County’s most recent election on March 26, for example, results were delayed because all of the county’s voting machines had to be manually closed one by one by a technician. Why? Because somebody had programmed them all to stop recording votes at 7 p.m. on April 30 (the date of the general election in the Horry County Council chairman race) rather than 7 p.m. March 26. This isn’t the first time. During the 2008 presidential primaries in Horry County, GOP results were similarly delayed because the machines had been incorrectly programmed to close a week later, on the date of the Democratic primary.

The recent report’s authors make a worthwhile suggestion that problems such as these should be reported to the State Elections Commission and recorded in a statewide database, to help track problems and identify recurring issues that need to be addressed. Amazingly, after surveying county election officials on how they handle problems among the state’s more than 11,000 voting machines, the report’s authors found that 63 percent of issues never get reported to the state. Simply keeping track of glitches and developing standards for fixing the common ones could more quickly resolve or even prevent many Election Day hiccups.

Any hiccup is much more than a mechanical or training issue, however. Voting is a system that must not only be secure, but must also be perceived as secure. And certainly the biggest and simplest method for reassuring voters would be adding a paper trail of some sort to the state’s machines. It’s a change we’ve long sought and which would go a long way toward resolving the trust issues we have with our current voting system. But we’re torn on the price tag: $17 million to update machines that originally cost about $35 million.

On one hand, it seems worth the cost for the peace of mind of knowing a paper trail exists in case of dispute. Voters should have the utmost confidence that their votes have been both received and tallied correctly. And, as this most recent report points out once again, without a paper trail, the post-election audits done by election officials cannot compare the votes cast with the votes recorded, a glaring deficiency. Instead, the audits merely compare the votes tabulated in the results with the votes recorded in the machines. Officials – and voters – have no way of knowing if machines simply failed to record a vote.

On the other hand, the state’s machines are already more than halfway through their expected lifespan of 12-15 years. It would be more fiscally responsible to start saving for the next batch – frankly, a task that should have begun already – rather than spend millions updating machines that are already breaking down. And a paper receipt or record of some sort should be a top priority when the state or counties go looking for the next generation of voting machines.

In all likelihood the state will be shambling through another few election cycles before we see the backs of the current crop of voting machines. In the meantime, legislators would be wise to approve the State Election Commission’s request to start putting aside money for new machines. We’ve had more than eight years now of seeing the limitations of the ones we’ve got. We’re more than ready for an upgrade.

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