South Carolina won't face the same election night apocalypse in its Feb. 29 primary that we saw last week in Iowa as untested software breakdowns sent state Democratic Party officials scrambling. But the mess in the Hawkeye State can shine a light into one of the darker corners of our democracy: how we cast our votes.
South Carolina's presidential primary has little in common with Iowa's first-in-the-nation contest. Most obviously, Iowans indicate their presidential preference in a caucus. This year, the Iowa Democratic Party contracted with a third-party developer on the ill-fated election reporting software. In S.C., since at least 2008, state election officials have operated a traditional presidential primary using standardized election machines statewide.
The fallout from Iowa mostly stems from how we pick nominees. The first caucus has more to do with capturing immediate media attention than doing democracy. The results will eventually be recorded all the same. Nonetheless, we created this wonderful, if fragile, process where a few hours of "failure to report" can blow up the media cycle for which these campaigns spent a year or more preparing.
In S.C., election officials seem to be confident that things will go off without a hitch. The Feb. 29 presidential primary is even less complicated than November's municipal elections — the same 10 candidates will appear on every primary voter's ballot across the state.
"Just as much prep goes into it as any other election," says Joseph Debney, the executive director of the Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration.
That's not to say, though, that South Carolina's election system is above reproach.
Last year, the state inked a $51 million contract with Election Systems and Software to replace thousands of voting machines with new two-stage machines that generate paper receipts for each voter. With one other vendor, Dominion, the two companies' machines were tasked with processing upwards of 150 million voters — about 80 percent of all votes cast in the U.S., according to a 2017 University of Pennsylvania report.
Chummy industry maneuvers that helped close the deal aside, critics maintain the new machines are vulnerable to hacks like any computer. They also claim proprietary software that reads and stores the votes amounts to an indecipherable black box, even for public interest watchdogs.
In a state where our leaders can't decide whether or how to sell off a publicly owned power company, isn't what has happened in South Carolina tantamount to privatizing our democracy to a corporation without much of a thought?
Debney, for what it's worth, says he was happy with how the new machines performed in Charleston County last year.
"We just want to make sure it's done correctly," Debney says.
Want first-hand experience with how we run our elections on the local level? Consider being a poll worker. You'll have to take a day off work, but you'll get paid $135 and you may be able to help improve our elections in the future. Visit charlestoncounty.org/departments/bevr to learn more.