Politics & Government

South Carolina needs money to protect elections. Its senators aren’t helping.

US Sens Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott
US Sens Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott jblake@thestate.com

South Carolina’s two Republican senators say they support badly-needed upgrades to the state’s election system — but they’re currently not doing much to provide assistance.

The South Carolina State Election Commission says it needs roughly $50 million to modernize its voting machines and is fighting a lawsuit demanding action.

In Washington, there’s been an effort to help the states. The “Secure Elections Act” would free up more federal grants to help states such as South Carolina meet its goals. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has signed onto the bill as an official supporter.

But debate on this bill was abruptly canceled on the eve of a Senate Rules Committee meeting scheduled for Thursday. Senate Republican leaders cited a variety of concerns from state election officials around the country who worried about the measure’s unfunded mandates and lack of flexibility for conducting audits.

“In recent days, individual Secretaries of State, including the Vermont Secretary of State, who currently serves as president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, have expressed concerns about certain provisions in the bill,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the committee’s chairman, explained in a statement.

“In order for a truly bipartisan election security bill to reach the floor, additional majority support is necessary,” he said.

South Carolina is one of five states that rely on voting machines that don’t produce a paper trail to verify tallies in the event of a close race or a security breach.

Graham concluded Thursday it was ultimately up to South Carolina to decide what it needed to do to make sure its systems are sound.

“I’m gonna leave it up to the state to figure out how best they want to run the election,” Graham said. “They’re in contact with the federal government trying to improve our systems across the board.”

He was unfamiliar with the lawsuit, filed in July with the U.S. District Court of South Carolina against the state’s election commission. Still in the early stages, the complaint alleges that the state’s 14-year-old voting machines are vulnerable to hacking, which undermines South Carolinians’ right to vote, and officials must switch to a system that can accommodate paper records.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., also expressed little urgency for action.

“Looking at South Carolina (election) security issues, I don’t think we have an issue,” Scott told McClatchy. “I’m very confident in our current system.”

At a recent classified briefing for senators with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Graham suggested the lack of a backup paper record system wasn’t a major concern.

“There are other backup systems we were told about, that I can’t talk about, that were pretty reassuring,” he said.

Graham has been heavily focused on election security issues over the past year, but mainly in the context of containing Russia, the primary aggressor in efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. On Thursday, he suggested that is where lawmakers need to focus their energies, starting with passing his Russia sanctions bill he refers to as the “sanctions from Hell bill.”

“There’s a really strong effort to have federal expertise be shared with the states,” said Graham. “My focus is, that’s all great. That’s good defense. But Russia is not deterred” in trying to interfere in U.S. elections.

Scott, who did not attend the entire classified briefing, also said the emphasis in the realm of election security should be on fighting Russia, adding that South Carolinians should in the meantime be assured that “the state as a whole is migrating to the system that has a paper trail.”

Chris Whitmire, South Carolina State Election Commission spokesman, confirmed officials were hard at work to replace aging machinery in time for the 2020 election, but they were relying heavily on funding.

The upgrades will be costly. The commission currently has $6 million in federal funding and $4 million from the state legislature. It’s not clear where the remaining $40 million would come from.

“Our plan is to replace (machines) in 2019, and that requires funding,” Whitmire told McClatchy. “I think we are confident that our state lawmakers are aware of the need, and I don’t know on the federal level.

“We are confident that our system will serve the state in 2018, and we’re confident in the security we have around our current system,” Whitmire continued, “but it’s time to replace.”

But Protect Democracy — a national group representing the lawsuit’s defendants, businessman Frank Heindel of Mt. Pleasant and former Democratic State Rep. Phil Leventis of Sumter — wants improvements in time for the midterms.

“We do think the (commission) can and should act before November,” said Protect Democracy spokesman Soren Dayton.

Whitmire said improvements before the 2020 elections would not be possible.

Tony Pugh and Christine Condon of the McClatchy Washington bureau and Bryan Lowry of the Kansas City Star contributed to this report.

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain