Columbia, SC (WLTX) — WLTX has done several stories in recent weeks about voting equipment issues in Richland county and concern over the state’s aging voting equipment.
A USC computer science professor, known for critiquing the state's aging voting equipment, is another voice calling for change before 2020.
“I think in order to restore trust in elections, we need to get as much technology out of this process as possible,” Duncan Buell said in his faculty office on Thursday.
Buell, a USC computer science professor with a doctorate in mathematics, has been auditing state election results independently for years.
He and the South Carolina State Election Commission started separate audits in 2010.
“We have seen a significant improvement, I think, in the quality of the process since 2010,” Buell added in his office.
Buell said a 2010 Democratic senate primary caused concern due to issues with vote counts in some counties. Together with others, like the League of Women Voters, Buell started individual audits.
In 2016, Buell said the data was, “really very very clean.”
Buell’s overall concern is with what he considers confusing election software operated by often older poll volunteers, security concerns and aging hardware.
“I have never seen instances of genuine fraud, I'm not sure I would be able to see instances of genuine fraud if it were done well,” Buell added.
Instead, he’s said anomalies over the years are often from another cause.
“What I have seen are essentially all the errors that tired people are likely to make at the end of a long day using a very, very complicated computer system that they don’t do every day,” Buell said.
But, he claims he’s also worried about the ability of bad actors to infiltrate voting systems in the state.
“Allegedly, our County systems are never connected to the internet,” Buell started.
“It’s not clear to me that the election workers realize that plugging anything into a computer that has been connected to the net is likely to provide a threat vector. If you take a flash drive and you download the results from the allegedly unconnected computer, you plug it in to a computer on the net to upload for the media, then use that flash drive again, then you are connected to the internet. Period. That’s just the assumption that you make,” Buell continued.
All told, it’s why he's one of several voices calling for a new system.
“Hand-marked paper, scanned at the precinct,” he said simply.
State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire agrees a new system is needed, but more so because the current one is aging. not because of issues like what Richland County reported earlier this week.
“Plenty of other counties conducted elections on the voting system and it worked fine,” Whitmire said.
Richland County reported problems with touch screen calibrations and issues counting absentee ballots on an older machine, run by zip drive.
“Richland uses the same equipment that 45 other counties use, they use the same scanner as other large counties use. There were plenty of other large counties using the M650 that didn’t experience issues on election night. Part of preparing for an election is performing maintenance on your scanner,” Whitmire said.
“Richland also has new leadership and new staff that have not conducted a statewide general election in South Carolina and have not conducted an election using this voting system. That’s not a knock on them, that’s just a reality,” he added.
Whitmire assured voters that there were not any sort of widespread issues with the machines on election day.
But, he said that it shouldn't take a large problem with the current equipment to get the necessary funding from the state legislature.
“Elections are far too important to wait on any catastrophic event to replace the system that we depend on,” Whitmire said at the Commission office.
The SEC has a $60 million budget request for new voting equipment statewide. South Carolina’s next budget would go into effect on July 1, 2019, which Whitmire said would be enough time to get a new system up and ready for 2020.
A presidential primary would most likely take place anytime from January to early March of 2020.
Whitmire also told WLTX the commission will require any new system to have some sort of paper trail of each voter's ballot.
“No such thing as 100 percent security,” Whitmire said.
“Our job is to make it as hard as possible for anyone to try to affect our elections infrastructure,” he added.