South Carolina is receiving federal funds to boost its election security — but not enough to make the changes state election officials say are really needed.
The S.C. Election Commission will receive a $6 million grant from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to improve the state’s election security ahead of the 2018 election, including replacing some of the state’s aging voting machines.
The grant money, combined with $4 million lawmakers are expected spend this year and $1 million election officials have set aside, gives the state $11 million total to spend on updating the state’s 14-year-old voting machines.
But election officials say the cost of replacing the more than 13,000 machines voters use to cast their ballots statewide could reach $50 million.
The Election Commission requested $20 million from the Legislature this year to set aside for new voting equipment, the agency’s spokesman Chris Whitmire said, adding the goal is to replace all the state’s machines in time for the 2020 presidential election.
“There has been talk of more federal funding, but nothing concrete,” Whitmire said. “That’s not in the picture at this point, so our only option is the General Assembly.”
Not only are South Carolina’s aging machines reaching the end of their life spans, but advocates say a newer voting system that incorporates a paper component is needed. That would provide voters with an independent paper trail to check against the machine-reported results.
“Every voter deserves to know their vote is counted as it was cast,” said Aquene Freechild with the consumer advocate group Public Citizen, which backs states adding paper ballots to their voting system.
Only 13 states, including South Carolina, currently use paperless machines. Whitmire said all the upgraded voting systems available for purchase today do use paper ballots in some way.
Some of the $6 million federal grant will go toward improving security features on election-related computer systems, the state’s voter-registration rolls, and on training for election personnel.
Securing voter data has been a major focus since the 2016 election, when South Carolina recorded 150,000 attempts to hack into its voter-registration system on Election Day alone. Those were among several attempts to penetrate voting systems reported ahead of the last national election.
Election officials are encouraged by the inclusion of new funding in both the S.C. House and Senate budget proposals this year, even if it’s less than what they requested.
“The fact it’s in both budgets is a good sign the General Assembly recognizes the need for a new voting system,” Whitmire said.