Voters across New Jersey are going to polling places today to pick a new governor, select candidates for seats in the state Legislature, and to decide many contested county and municipal elections.
But questions have been raised in recent weeks about whether the electronic machines that will be used to count the vote in many places in New Jersey are vulnerable to computer error or even hacking, and lawmakers are pushing for the machines to eventually be upgraded so there’s a “voter-verified” paper trail to back up each vote that is cast on Election Day.
To be sure, there’s been no evidence of any widespread voting-machine failure or large-scale tampering leading up to today’s elections in New Jersey, and election officials say there have been no recorded cases of an electronic-voting machine having been hacked in New Jersey during any recent election. What’s more, the machines themselves are not attached to any network so hacking would have to occur in person rather than remotely.
But a Princeton University computer-science professor opened the eyes of lawmakers by showing them during a recent hearing in Trenton how voting machines that are used in 18 of New Jersey’s 21 counties could theoretically be hacked manually by someone seeking to make sure an election turns out in a specific way.
Guarding against fraud
The demonstration underscored a push to pass a piece of legislation that was reviewed during the same hearing. It calls for New Jersey to be brought up to speed with most other states that have already upgraded voting machines to a voter-verified paper record that can be used to guard against mistakes or even fraud. And while the voting-machine legislation was introduced in New Jersey at the beginning of this year, concerns about computer hacking and election interference have only intensified in recent months amid an ongoing federal investigation into Russian efforts to influence the results of last year’s presidential election.
“Unlike most other states, over the years, we have not ensured that there is an auditable paper trail,” said Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio, a primary sponsor of the voting-machine legislation.
“It’s about the integrity of the machines, and the integrity and the ability to audit our election results,” said Muoio (D-Mercer).
Most counties in New Jersey use a voting machine known as the AVC Advantage, which allows for the electronic recording of votes cast at the ballot box on Election Day. The widespread switch to the use of these machines occurred more than a decade ago, after the federal government allocated money through the Help America Vote Act to each state to help modernize elections at the local level.
But while many other states are now using electronic-voting machines that also produce a printout for every vote, money has not been made available by the federal government or the state to fund a similar conversion in New Jersey. That means the tabulation of votes are primarily recorded only on the machines’ hard drives, and any recounts rely primarily on the electronic machines to print out results that were not tabulated through paper absentee or provisional ballots. There are some exceptions, including in Warren County, where a paper record is also produced for each vote that’s cast.
The voting machines in use in most counties in New Jersey are not tied to the Internet, and they don’t use wireless networks. That means any hacking must be done in person, and not from a remote computer in a place like Russia. While that makes the hacking harder to execute, Princeton University computer science professor Andrew Appel told lawmakers during the late-October hearing that someone with skills “well within the abilities of anybody with a bachelor’s degree in computer science” could open up an unsupervised machine and insert a computer chip that’s pre-programmed to distort the results of an election.
“Writing the program that cheats took only a couple of days,” Appel said.
Not readily hacked
But a number of election officials also testified during the hearing, and they attempted to throw cold water on Appel’s assertions that the machines currently in use are widely vulnerable to such hacking. For example, they said election officials undergo rigorous training to ensure anti-tampering seals installed in every machine are in place before each election. They also noted that even the type of paper-ballot backup system that Appel highlighted as a better alternative is not foolproof since paper records remains subject to human interpretation.
“We strongly disagree with any theory, argument, or belief, that falsely alleges that the voting machines currently in use are hackable and unsecure,” said Shona Mack-Pollock, the deputy superintendent of elections in Passaic County.
Still, Mack-Pollock, who is also an officer of the New Jersey Association of Election Officials, said her organization supports the general goal of the legislation that would requiring all new voting machines be equipped to produce a voter-verified paper record.
Under the legislation sponsored by Muoio, voting machines up for renewal in all New Jersey counties would have to be replaced, whether through a lease or purchase, with machines that have the ability to produce a paper record of each vote “at the time the vote is cast.” The measure would also require the record of each vote to be preserved in case election officials later decide to conduct a manual recount of the results.
“It’s beholden upon us to get this right,” said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, another primary sponsor of the bill.
“This will set the stage for how the counties in New Jersey start to replace their machines,” said Zwicker (D-Middlesex).