No Poison in the Poison pill: the SC Senate did it right- Our take on election integrity bill 4919

Last week the senate surprised everyone in South Carolina by adding amendments to the election integrity bills that the GOP “guaranteed” would be signed and passed.

The Senate combined bills 4919 and 3444 which was a good thing. They also added some surprises that were not welcome by the GOP leadership and the House.  The main issue in their opinion was a so-called “poison pill.”  The language that was objectionable was the ability of the Senate to provide advice and consent to the state election commission members, currently now solely appointed by the governor:

“State Election Commission composed of five members, to be appointed by the Governor, upon the advice and consent of the Senate”

 In our opinion, this is a good thing as it provides more scrutiny of the nominees for a group that currently has very little accountability.  We think that Senator Massey did a great job of debating this in the session during deliberation and encourage everyone to listen to the link.  It starts about 4 hours and 46 minutes in. This is a safeguard against partisan control of this entity. 

Overall, some of the changes were good, some bad, and we don’t think the bill goes far enough to provide true election reform—a good method to clean and maintain the voter rolls, removing electronic poll books and machines, and transparency in the reporting of results.

The Good

  • The bill reduces some of the reasons for applying for an absentee ballot however this is mainly due to the fact that they institute a 2-week early voting period and some categories would be permanently out of the county i.e., absent from residence.   Ideally some additional restrictions would be put on early voting whether “in person” at an early voting center or absentee by mail.
  • 2 categories of electors who can vote early via absentee mail in balloting:
    • Unable to vote during duration of entire early voting period and election day
      • Due to work obligations
      • Taking care of sick or disabled
      • Confined to jail
      • Will be absent from residence
    • Regardless of ability to vote during those times
      • Disabled
      • 65 or older—(we would have liked to see this eliminated)
      • Armed forces
      • In hospital within 4 days of election
  • Additional requirements were made for those requesting ballots for themselves as well as on behalf of others:
    • If request for self and/or another person must now include name, DOB, last 4 of SS#, requester name, DOB and address and relation and this information Must be verified by county board.  
    • Completed application must be returned in person (elector or member of immediate family or authorized rep) or by mail to county BOE no later than 5PM the 11th day before the day of election—used to be day preceding the election
    • Witness must be 18 years or older. This age requirement was not present previously, and must include the address, name and signature of the witness.
  • Someone can only request up to 5 absentee applications—this reduces the potential for ballot harvesting.
  • The ballot needs to incorporate features to authenticate the ballot as official but do not make the ballot identifiable to a particular elector.   
  • Authorization for the requested ballots is enhanced—authorization form must record specific form of government-issued photo for those who are acting on an elector’s behalf.  This deters the issue of “mules” trying to just hand in ballots for anyone.  It is a further safeguard against nursing home issues and other people who claim that they are the elector’s representative.
  • The county can start checking the oath and witness signatures now at 7 AM two days prior to election day. Tabulation of the absentee ballots starts at 7 AM on election day.  The process of examining the return addressed enveloped, opening the Ballot Herein envelopes and tabulation of absentee ballots can be viewed by poll watchers and candidates at reasonable distance in order to maintain both the right to observe and the secrecy of the ballots.  Note that the witness signatures and other information must be verified for the ballot to count.
  • Another positive is that registration applications should now affirm citizenship and that they are NOT registered in another state or county and that all applications should be date stamped.
  • There must be an annual general registration list mainenance to maintain accurate voter rolls. A county board of elections shall send a notice my mail at the address on file with the board to verify the accuracy of the information and determine discrepancies. The name of the qualified elector that has not responded to a notice (notice is undeliverable) shall be placed in inactive status in the master file within 7 days of receipt of said returned notice assuming they moved or if deceased, noncitizen, or mentally incompetent.   This compels the state to do this list maintenance and it would be preferable if this info was provided via voter roll requests at a nominal fee.
  • Language was added to maintain the image of ballots in the voting system that protects the anonymity of the voter and the retention period for ballots and election data was extended to 24 months (from 22).
  • Increased fines and prison terms were added for early reporting of results and election interference or fraud and these were changed from misdemeanors to felonies.
  • Does prevent auto adjudication which is also good as machine adjudication (checking that ballots voted as person intended) can be easily manipulated and or error prone.
  • They are allowing a public input period prior to the purchase of statewide voting systems.
  • The bureau of vital statistics must report in state as well as OUT OF STATE deaths of SC citizens
  • The DMV must give a monthly report to the SEC of all non US citizens who have been issued a drivers license or identification card at no charge.
  • Prohibits the use of emergency declarations to change practices by the election commission
  • Finally, the SEC and county BOE must not accept any funds, grants or gifts from any source other than the state or federal government for preparation or to conduct elections. (Thus, if any of these donations go through the state procurement, it needs to be transparent)
  • The SEC shall provide a report of voters removed and reason for removal, active, archived, new voter registrations and voters placed on inactive status to the general assembly annually on January 15th.

The Bad

  • As we already stated, the bill extends election day to two weeks prior to “election day” and institutes early voting centers –up to 7 per county.  This early voting can be a potential vehicle for fraud and election irregularities.
  • Certification of the election management system: If federal guidelines have been amended less than 36 months prior to election, the SEC may approve the election system based on prior standards.  This is a long time period and could be a way to avoid the new VVSG 2.0 protocol (federal voting guidelines) and avoid any recertification process.  Although it may streamline certification and reduce cost, it will likely result in greater vulnerabilities than already exist. 
  • The bill doesn’t address cost of the voter rolls which is currently $2,500. They should be no more than $500 in line with most other states. This allows for citizens to analyze the quality control of the voter maintenance.
  • The bill doesn’t address the machines or the ability for some counties to opt out so that they could try paper ballots.  Although it asks for: “anytime voter is eligible to cast a ballot the voting machine and counting device must be disabled from internet/network/wireless connection/other mechanism… and automatic resolution functionality for ballots flagged for further review; it does still state that there will be connection when counties report to the State Election Commission.  However, these systems don’t have to be connected to the internet to be vulnerable. There are hundreds of ways they can be manipulated per our cyber experts—and not just the tabulators but the poll books, reporting system and registration database.  This is why it is essential that we go to PAPER BALLOTS—and no, not the ballots that are spit out after you vote on the touch screen. These are NOT paper ballots; they are coded ballots (a bar code is programmed and printed on the card that comes out of the ballot marking device to be reflective of your vote.)  Paper ballots are when a human fills out the circles and chooses their candidates. These are then hand counted! See this related article.
  • The bill doesn’t address ERIC the clearing house that is supposed to be helping our state clean the voter rolls.  This organization is concerning given the recent Gateway Pundit articles.

As it stands, given the overall good enhancements and amendments the last senate version is a huge improvement over the house version.  While this is a far cry from substantive reform it has many things to celebrate.  Unfortunately, a big issue is the 2-week early voting period.

This is a great start and we would like to see this bill pass.  Ideally, in the next session we can build on this momentum to get it “totally right” in South Carolina and adopt measures that really make a difference by enhancing accountability, eliminating the cost and complexity and potential for fraud with the current election management system (ideally move to paper poll books and ballots), totally revamping the voter registration and maintenance program and making the entire process more transparent.

Citizens would be shocked to know that our entire system is controlled by out of state entities for the most part. We don’t have any ability to see how our vote is being counted and reporting is done by a foreign entity.  Our own state doesn’t have access to the source codes for the machines. Is this even constitutional? According to our state constitution our votes should be cast in secret but NOT COUNTED IN SECRET. This is currently not the case. We have outsourced this responsibility to corporations and machine manufacturers.

Let’s bring the vote back to the people and instill more confidence in our elections. Great job, Senate!