Before the start of last Wednesday's sparsely attended Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration meeting, Frank Heindel turned around in his seat to ask a question of the woman sitting behind him: "You don't think I'm crazy, do you?"
Heindel, a Mt. Pleasant resident, has almost single-handedly taken up the crusade of reforming South Carolina's electronic voting system, and the idea he presented to the BEVR last week might sound crazy to the uninitiated: He wants the county to go back to using paper ballots. "I believe every citizen in Charleston County deserves an election process that is transparent, conforms to existing laws, and can produce an audit paper trail," Heindel said.
The board heard him out, and it voted to have its executive director look into new options for the November 2013 general elections — including new electronic machines and old-school paper ballots read by optical scanners. Heindel's full proposal was that the county conduct some, if not all, local elections this November without using its iVotronic touchscreen voting machines, which the election-integrity hellraiser says are flawed due to problems like vulnerability to virus attacks and a lack of hard-copy verification. Heindel also asked the board to require a post-election audit be conducted.
The board members sounded open to Heindel's idea from the start. "I think your concerns are well-founded, and certainly we acknowledge your concerns are realistic given how many people could hack into computers now," said board member Carolyn Lecque. Heindel's interest in the voting process goes back to 2010, when Manning, S.C., resident and political newcomer Alvin Greene surprisingly won the Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat against Charleston County Council member Vic Rawl. Numerous rumors about Greene circulated at the time, including that he was a spoiler planted by Republicans and that voters had simply confused him for R&B singer Al Green.
But for Heindel, the Alvin Greene upset victory prompted a thorough investigation of the state's voting machines, many of which had been upgraded to the new iVotronic touchscreen model with federal funds provided by the 2002 Help America Vote Act. After hounding the state's various election boards and filing Freedom of Information requests for lists of voting machine errors and proof of election outcomes, he came to realize that there was no paper trail to verify who won an election and that the State Election Commission had not gotten the new machines certified by an accredited lab. Hence the call for paper ballots.
At last week's meeting, BEVR Chairman Dan Martin expressed reservations about a change in voting machines, including the cost and time requirements. "My only concern as a taxpayer is how we pay for it," Martin said. The county still uses paper ballots for absentee voting, and in 2008, Martin says, election officials spent until 3 p.m. the day after the election just tabulating the results of the absentee ballots. Many of the ballots had been damaged by coffee stains, rain, and other irregularities, and they had to be counted by hand.
BEVR Executive Director Joseph Debney said a switch to paper ballots would likely require the county to purchase two or three new ballot scanners, which would cost $90,000 to $100,000 apiece, in addition to hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper. Voting can also take longer on paper ballots, he says, with voters taking extra care to circle a candidate's name by hand.
Debney says that he understands the concerns over viruses and hacking, but when it comes to protecting the voting machines against tampering, "it all comes down to physical security" — for example, keeping the public out of restricted areas at polling places. He says he also works to ensure that poll workers follow protocol by transferring data between voting machines on flash drives and never via wifi networks.
Debney has been given the task of researching the county's voting machine options, and he says he's open to the paper ballot idea. "It's not not doable," Debney says. "To us, the medium doesn't matter as long as we have a flawless system in the end that goes from the people we put in place and hire all the way to the system that you use."