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Tony Shaffer: New Report Highlights Urgent Need to Replace SC Voting System

South Carolina can get a better, more secure system at a lower cost to taxpayers …

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by TONY SHAFFER ||The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have confirmed that Russian hackers targeted all 50 states during the 2016 elections – not just the 21 states previously reported. This new information highlights the urgent need to replace South Carolina’s old, vulnerable digital touchscreen “DRE” voting machines. As a cyber operations expert with nearly forty years of national security experience, I feel the need to speak up: It’s critical to deter and mitigate these threats before the 2020 elections.

South Carolina is moving in the right direction. The legislature has appropriated $40 million for a new voting system and, to ensure a smooth procurement process, given responsibility for procuring the system to the S.C. Department of Administration (SCDOA).

As the department examines the available systems, it should carefully consider the efficiency, cost, and security of each system. It should also avoid the mistakes made in Georgia, where the legislature fast-tracked a bill requiring a $150 million voting system comprised of ballot-marking devices (BMDs) without considering a more secure, lower-cost system of hand-marked paper ballots.

BMDs, which require voters to select their preferred candidates using a touchscreen, may be more high-tech than paper ballots but are by no means higher quality. BMDs contain vulnerable computer systems that can be hacked to change ballots after they are cast. Although BMDs print a paper record of votes cast, they often do so in barcode format, making it impossible for voters to ensure that their vote will ultimately be recorded accurately. And like any machine, BMDs are susceptible to technical glitches and power outages, increasing chances that voters will be forced to wait in long lines on election day.

Hand-marked paper ballots present a simple solution to election security challenges. Voters fill out their ballot with a pen. The ballot is then fed into an optical scanner which reads and records each vote. Paper ballots are easy to use and hard to tamper with, making them much more secure than computer-based systems. And unlike BMDs, which limit the number of voters who can vote at one time in each precinct, paper ballots can be used by many voters at the same time, ensuring that voters can get in and out of the polls quickly.

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Not only are paper ballots more secure and easier to use, they are also much less expensive. The S.C. Election Commission (SCVotes.org) previously requested $60 million for a new voting system comprised of BMDs. This price doesn’t include the long-term costs of maintaining, licensing, and storing the bulky machines year-round. A paper ballot system, on the other hand, could easily be purchased with the $40 million already appropriated, saving taxpayers about $20 million. Although the optical scanners used to read paper ballots require some maintenance, the cost is far less because usually only one optical scanner is needed per precinct.

Why should South Carolina spend $60 million of its hard-earned taxpayer dollars on BMDs when it can obtain a more secure, more efficient system for two-thirds of the cost? It just doesn’t make fiscal sense.

Of course, precincts must continue to ensure that voters with disabilities have equal access to the polls. They can do this by providing one BMD per precinct for individuals who require a touch screen to vote. And for voters with disabilities who vote curbside, a paper ballot can be brought to their car in a privacy sleeve – which is quicker, easier, and less dangerous than transporting a large, unwieldy BMD.

It’s astonishing that lawmakers in Georgia did not take these considerations into account when selecting their new voting system. South Carolina does not have to make the same mistake.

In my decades of work with the FBI, NSA, and CIA, I’ve advised on national security threats that are complex and intractable. This one is not. It’s a problem with a simple solution: paper ballots reduce taxpayer costs, make voting easier, and protect the integrity of the vote. Lawmakers have a unique opportunity to make South Carolina a leader on election security while saving taxpayer money. They should take it.

Lieutenant colonel Tony Shaffer is a retired senior intelligence operations officer and acting president of the London Center for Policy Research.

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