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Politics & Government

Company that courted SC elections chief wins $51M bid for new voting machines


South Carolina voters will get a paper printout of their completed ballots starting next year, when the state puts in place some 13,500 new voting machines.

State officials on Monday announced that a $51 million contract had been awarded to Election Systems and Software, the nation’s largest voting equipment vendor, to provide the new voting machines which promise more security in producing a paper ballot.

ES&S has a lengthy history with South Carolina. The company provided the state’s existing voting system, in place since 2004. The paperless system has drawn increasing scrutiny, raising questions about accuracy of counting votes and whether the system is vulnerable to hacking.

The company also has ties to elections officials in South Carolina and other states, an investigation by McClatchy and The State revealed. Marci Andino, executive director for the S.C. State Election Commission, formerly served on an advisory panel to the company, which treated her and elections officials from other states to trips to Las Vegas and elsewhere.

Andino said she ran her trips by state ethics officials and has stepped down from the advisory role with ES&S prior to the state’s efforts to procure a new voting system.

Andino was among the state officials Monday who announced the new voting system, expected to be in place in time for 2020 elections.

“This system will not only provide voters with a dependable system for years to come, but it will also greatly enhance the security and resilience of our election process.” Andino said. “We will now be able to audit paper ballots to verify results. This is a significant measure that will go a long way in providing voters and election officials the assurance that every vote is counted just as the voter intended.”

The new voting system will “provide voters with the familiarity of a touchscreen combined with the security of a paper ballot,” according to a press release announcing the new system. Voters still will make selections on their ballot using a touchscreen, but afterward, they will print out a paper ballot for their review. Then, voters will enter their ballots into a scanner.

The scanner will count the votes, and the paper ballots will be deposited into a ballot box, where they can be retrieved for verifying and auditing results, state election officials said Monday.

Not everyone agrees the dual touchscreen and paper-ballot system is the most secure way to go.

“Regardless of the vendor ... voters should be able to verify in the voting booth, not by hand recount later, that the system is reading their vote accurately,” said Lynn Teague of the League of Women Voters.

While the new system prints out a paper ballot for voters to review, Teague argues there’s no way for voters to ensure that the barcode on the ballot read by a scanner correctly records the voter’s selections as printed on the ballot.

Critics of the Election Commission, including the League, say the state could move toward hand-marked ballots that can’t be hacked at half the projected cost — about $25 million.

Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the South Carolina Election Commission, said new the dual touchscreen and paper-ballot system can better accommodate the disabled and elderly by adjusting type size or providing audio, and help avoid mismarked ballots.

“It leaves no question as to the voter’s intent,” Whitmire said.

John Wells, chairman of the State Election Commission, added “there’s no way to hack into” the machines, as they’re not connected to the Internet.

Teague contends poorly designed ES&S software has led to problems in the past, including miscounted votes, according to League audits of South Carolina elections. She also argued hand-marked ballots have worked well in other states, and problems reading them have been exaggerated.

“We are paying extra money for something that produces extra problems,” she said.

Company courted SC elections director

Nebraska-based Election Systems and Software was one of three companies that submitted seven proposals to provide a new generation of voting machines for the state, including both hand-marked and ballot-marking systems, officials said Monday.

The company previously won a state contract in 2004 to supply voting equipment to the Palmetto State and continues to provide support for the aging voting machines in all 46 counties.

For at least nine years, ES&S invited dozens of state and local elections officials to serve on an “advisory board” that gathers twice annually for company-sponsored conferences, including at a ritzy Las Vegas resort hotel, a McClatchy investigation found. Andino was among the attendees. The State reported last June that the company had covered $19,200 in expenses associated with those trips for Andino during her decade as an adviser for ES&S.

Andino’s ties to ES&S have raised concerns among ethics experts and election watchdogs, who question whether the company’s hospitality and hobnobbing with government officials unduly influenced the bidding process and outcome.

On Monday, Andino reiterated that her ties with ES&S’s advisory board ended before South Carolina sought a new contract for voting machines, and she she did not take part in selecting the winning bid.

“I didn’t have any involvement until after the evaluation process was over, and I participated in contract negotiations,” Andino said.

Election officials said Andino’s connection to ES&S in no way impacted the state’s decision over which company was awarded the multimillion dollar contract.

ES&S was chosen after a six-month procurement process overseen by the S.C. Department of Administration and State Fiscal Accountability Authority. The firm was selected by a five-member panel of members of the State Election Commission after consulting state and private cybersecurity experts and county and state election administrators, among others, Wells said.

“At the end of the day the ES&S system was the better system for South Carolina,” he said.

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