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Poor Security of NJ Election System and Russian Hackers Prompt Move to Revamp

No agreement on best voting machines, but consensus that they should allow for a paper trail so that results could be properly audited

vincent mazzeo
Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo

Voting in New Jersey would go retro, using paper, pens and scanning machines, under legislation designed to increase the security of the ballot in the state.

Not everyone who testified at the Assembly’s first hearing Wednesday on a new bill (A3991), called the New Jersey Elections Security Act could agree on what voting machines would be best. But all did agree that the state needs new voting machines with a paper trail to allow audits of election results to ensure their accuracy.

“We must have an assurance that our votes are accurate and legitimate,” said Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo (D-Atlantic), both chair of the committee and co-sponsor of the bill. “Where is our democracy without our votes being valid?”

Mazzeo’s bill was prompted in part by reports of Russian hackers attempting to access election systems in 20 states in 2016, and being successful in a handful of cases, though security officials say no votes were changed. Mazzeo was also prompted to create the bill after the state received a D grade from the Center for American Progress, which rated New Jersey among the states with the least secure election systems. The low grade was due, in large part, because there is no way to independently audit ballot results should a hacker meddle with the programming of one or more election machines.

voting machine

“Voting computers are hackable,” said Andrew Appel, a professor of computer science at Princeton University who has demonstrated how to hack a New Jersey voting machine. “We should run our elections in a way that can detect and correct for hacking without having to put all our trust in computers. Therefore, we cannot use paperless touchscreen voting computers. They are fatally flawed technology.”

No way to check

But that’s just what New Jersey and a few other states use. In New Jersey, the counties choose which machines to use and 19 of 21 use the Sequoia ACS Advantage touchscreen system. They are between 14 and 18 years old and store voting results on cartridges that are then read in county election offices and counted without leaving any paper trail of how individuals voted. So if someone were to write a program to have the machine record votes differently from the way they are cast — for instance, every fifth vote for Candidate A would instead by given to Candidate B — there would be no way to check that the results were accurate.

State law, passed in 2009, already requires audits of election results by the Attorney General’s office in at least two percent of the election districts in each county of the “random hand-to-eye counts of the voter-verifiable paper records that are to be conducted by appropriate county election officials.” But since there are no paper records to check against machine tallies, these audits cannot be done.
Mazzeo’s bill seeks to have New Jersey switch to an optical scan voting system, such as the one used in New York and many other states.

The system works like this: A voter receives a paper ballot, then proceeds to a privacy booth to fill it out by coloring in circles next to candidates’ names, similar to completing a standardized test. After completing the ballot, the voter takes it to a machine, where it is scanned in, the circles are read and the votes are counted. The paper ballot drops into a secure box and is held for purposes of an audit or recount. A machine may reject a ballot that is not properly filled out and the voter may fix a mistake on that ballot or may request a new ballot.

Ballots that can be counted by humans

Appel said this is the kind of system New Jersey should adopt because it allows for the paper ballots to “be counted by humans” in random audits and in case there is an issue.

He noted there was a problem in an election in Cumberland County in 2011 that could not be verified because there were no paper ballots. The head of the county board of elections said a programming error swapped the names of two candidates in the voting booth so that when people thought they were voting for one candidate, the vote was being tallied for the other. Because this was an election for county committee members in one municipality and involved just 43 votes, the losing candidates got affidavits from 30 people who said they voted for the pair. That led a Superior Court judge to order a new election for those seats months later.

“Every few years I get a call from a candidate in New Jersey saying, ‘I lost the election, but I think they may have cheated,’” Appel said. “I say, ‘You probably lost but we can’t know for sure.’ There are no ballots to recount. That is a very unsatisfying position for a candidate to be in in a democratic country.”

Mazzeo’s bill would have the state begin piloting the new system in three counties and then add more counties each year, resulting in all counties using optical scanning within four years. The state would pay for the new machines. The bill would require partial audits after every election. It would also establish a permanent election security committee to monitor how well the new system is working and issue annual reports on the results of the audits and security matters.

Several county officials testified at the hearing, all in favor of the state switching to a system that includes a paper trail and most in support of using the optical scan technology.

The cost of improving

Mary Melfi, county clerk in Hunterdon and president of the New Jersey Association of Counties, said the association generally supports the bill, particularly the phase-in and state payment of machines. However, she said the state also needs to account for “soft costs,” including the cost to print all the paper ballots that would be scanned. Using the 2016 election as a guide, she said what cost the county $75,000 for the primary would balloon to $205,000 this year.

Michael Harper, clerk of the Hudson County Board of Elections, said the equipment for a new system, including multiple so-called privacy booths, might also cost more to deliver. He urged the committee to continue to allow counties to decide which specific systems to choose, rather than have the state order all counties to use the same system.

Paula Sollami Covello, the Mercer County clerk, cautioned against the committee acceding to the suggestions of Appel and others who said New Jersey can implement the new voting system in time for the November general election.

“The phase-in is a good one,” Covello said. “It is very tough to get everyone trained on new equipment. To do it for November this year, that would be very, very, very aggressive.”

Downside of optical scanning

One official balked at the call for optical scanning systems, saying they could cause a number of problems. These include longer wait times to vote, votes being misread or not counted when a voter does not fully color in a circle or colors outside the lines into another candidate’s circle and waste — state law requires polling places to have enough ballots for 110 percent of registered voters, but turnout has been 70 percent at best in presidential elections and much lower in other years.

“This is not the optimal system we are looking for,” said Shona Mack-Pollock, deputy superintendent of elections in Passaic County and second vice president of the New Jersey Association of Election Officials. “I believe we do need a paper trail, but we should not go back to all paper ballots.

She suggested a hybrid system that includes a voter-verified paper audit trail, which would give voters the touchscreens that are familiar to them while also providing paper voting records that can be audited. There are several different kinds of machines that do this, but all create a paper record of each voter’s choices that the voter can verify are accurate and the paper is stored so it can be used in an audit.

“That would prevent the inevitable shenanigans that are inherent to paper ballots,” Mack-Pollock said and referenced the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida that hinged on how election officials interpreted “hanging chads,” the small pieces of paper left attached to a ballot after a voter had incompletely punched a hole next to the name of a candidate. “We don’t want to move backward. Voter verified paper audit trail machines will satisfy all our concerns.”

Mazzeo said he had not scheduled a vote on the bill in order to hear from voting experts and that the bill is “a working document.” He said he would consider all the suggestions and make any appropriate amendments.

New Jersey’s election and homeland security leaders, neither of whom testified on Wednesday, put out a statement last month saying they are confident in the integrity and security of the state’s voting system.

The state is eligible for $9.8 million in federal funds to enhance voting security, which could be used for new machines. But the Brennan Center for Justice estimated it would cost New Jersey between $40 million and $63.5 million to replace all of the state’s machines. Mazzeo said the cost of replacing all in one year would be prohibitive.

Several other bills meant to address voting security are also pending. Among them is A-1899, which would require all new voting machines that are purchased to have a paper trail, but not require counties to replace the current machines according to any specific time frame. On the other hand, S-1113 would require all counties to switch to optical scan machines in time for the June primary and have the state pay the costs. At this point, that timeframe would seem to be impossible to meet. Neither bill has had a hearing this session.

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