A safe and secure election is the foundation of our democracy. But, how safe and secure are our elections?
“Security has always been important in elections over the years,” said Chris Whitmire, director of public relations and training for the state elections commission.
Whitmire said the Department of Homeland Security classified elections as a critical infrastructure sector after the 2016 elections. He said it brought several agencies together.
“The election community is more unified, more coordinated and better prepared than ever before. We are in the final stretch leading up to the 2020 elections and there is no doubt we have a challenging road ahead,” a release from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency dated Aug. 20, said.
The release said while the novel coronavirus pandemic has changed the way voters cast their ballot, the threat of foreign interference remains.
The agency partnered with the Election Assistance Commission to release the Election Risk Profile Tool, a survey which election officials can take to assess their agencies.
South Carolina began this tumultuous year with new paper ballot voting machines. These new ExpressVote devices were made by ES&S, Election Systems and Software.
“ES&S has been committed to safe and secure elections for nearly 40 years,” Katina Granger, public relations manager for ES&S, said in an email. “We work closely with federal, state and local election officials, the EAC, DHS, law enforcement, voting system manufacturers and the election community at-large to ensure we are taking all of the recommended steps to enhance elections security.”
ES&S tout the security advantages for its machines including protection against tampering during storage, transport or voting in a security bulletin on its website. The machines can be locked and sealed with tamper-evident seals and access codes.
“We put our equipment through thousands of hours of testing and submitted our end-to-end voting system — the same system being used in South Carolina — to the Idaho National Lab for independent third-party penetration testing,” Granger said.
Whitmire said the voting machines the state previously used were good machines that operated well but have one main difference.
“The biggest difference with it is that it has a paper record of every voter’s cast ballot,” Whitmire said.
Paper balloting provides a different layer of security, Whitmire said.
“Every voter puts their ballot in a ballot box,” Whitmire said.
The paper ballots can be used for recounts or hand-counted audits. Whitmire said the state is also using a third-party verification system.
This system, which is different from the voting machines made by ES&S, will count the votes on the ballots.
“Sort of a check on making sure the software is doing what it is supposed to do,” Whitmire said.
The system also has another security feature.
“No part of the voting system is ever connected to the internet,” Whitmire said.
The state’s computers that have the software used to tabulate and report the results are also never connected to the internet.
“A lot of security is involved in that process,” Whitmire said.
Most South Carolinians are confident in the accuracy of state elections, a survey of registered voters who voted in person during the June primaries said. Eighty-five percent of those surveyed were very or somewhat confident in the accuracy of elections in South Carolina.
“South Carolina voters feel voter fraud occurs less often in South Carolina elections than in national elections,” a release on the survey results said.
Whitmire said the structure of the state’s elections offers added security.
“Every state conducts elections in their own way,” Whitmire said. “When we conduct a general election, we are really conducting 46 separate elections.”
He said the segmented nature of elections provides security.
“We take all reasonable measures,” Whitmire said. “We aren’t aware of any situation where we have been targeted.”
Training poll workers properly is one safeguard that ensures everyone’s vote is counted.
In early October, Greenwood County Director of Voter Registration and Elections Connie Moody trained poll workers.
“We train our poll workers to remain vigilant at the polls by watching for, and reporting, anything that seems out of the ordinary,” Moody said in an email.
Moody said the elections office remains vigilant by following policies and procedures for security.
“At this time, I have full confidence in the systems and procedures Connie Moody has in place to accurately and compressively capture our votes,” Bill Kimler, chairman of the Greenwood County Democratic Party, said in an email.
Kimler said he had the opportunity to receive training from Moody’s department.
“I was appreciative of the emphasis placed on proper safety protocols implemented in the midst of a pandemic,” Kimler said.
While he wasn’t prepared to comment on the state’s efforts at securing elections, Rep. Jeff Duncan did say the state was on the right track.
“South Carolina has done the right things from a policy perspective to protect elections,” Duncan said in an email.
Election and security officials are clear about what is important.
“Safeguarding the sanctity of your vote is paramount. States have made significant progress since 2016, but as long as the threat remains, there is work to be done,” U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, FBI director Christopher Wray, acting Homeland Defense Secretary Chad Wolf, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency director Christopher Klebs and acting director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, said in an opinion piece published Feb. 19 in USA Today.