Routine ballot audit this year becomes historic

Jeff Pillets | December 2, 2020 | NJ Decides 2020, Politics
For the first time in over a century, election workers have paper ballots to check instead of machines
Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Oct. 29, 2020: Mail-in ballots were prepared for counting by Union County Board of Elections.

Editor’s Note: This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

A team of 60 Bergen County election workers gathered in Paramus on Monday to make one more big lift in this year’s mostly mail-in election — an unprecedented exercise that tested the patience of New Jersey voters and vote canvassers alike.

Seated at folding tables, the election workers spent most of the day in silent concentration, poring over 10,000 to 12,000 ballots, eyeballing every one in a hand count designed to be one last safety check on the election of 2020.

Scenes like the one in Bergen County are playing out across New Jersey this week as county officials complete a state-mandated audit of the record 4.5 million votes cast in the general election. State law requires each county board of election to check a random sample of votes —roughly, about 2% of all ballots submitted.

And although the process continues, officials in Bergen and elsewhere say it has thus far revealed no anomalies in the official counts of ballots cast by voters.

Paper trail makes the difference

On the surface, the vote audit is just another obscure administrative ritual that might pass without notice. But this year’s version is truly a bit of history: Experts say this is New Jersey’s first statewide voting audit of its kind in more than a century.

New Jersey remains one of only a handful of states that still primarily use vintage voting machines that do not print a paper trail backup. Only three of the state’s 21 counties — Warren, Middlesex and Union — have machines that make a paper record of every voter’s completed ballot.

All the rest use so-called “direct recording electronic” machines, or DREs, that leave no paper record. DREs in some New Jersey counties are 15 or more years old. The old machines, some claim, are also prone to hacking and susceptible to fraud, although elections officials say such cases are rare.

“With the old machines, there is no real record of how someone intended to vote, so there is nothing to audit,” said Mary Pat Gallagher, an analyst with New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center. “It’s a ridiculous situation, yet it continues to go on.”

This year’s mostly mail-in election, however, creates the possibility for a meaningful vote audit because the vast majority of the votes cast in New Jersey came in the form of hand-written mail-in ballots and provisional ballots. Disabled voters were allowed to use accessible machines at polling places on Election Day, but only a tiny fraction of votes were registered this way.

“A lot of people complained because they missed their old voting machines,” Gallagher said. “But the mail-in ballots gave us a written record to check. This was a more secure election because of it.”

‘Safe election’

County election officials, still in the midst of the audit, say it’s still too early to draw definitive conclusions. But they say preliminary results show that the vote count proved to be remarkably accurate.

In Bergen County, for example, officials said the random recount is matching up perfectly with vote totals counted by optical scanning machines that initially recorded the votes. Officials in Atlantic, Warren and Union counties also said they were finding no anomalies.

“I think we can say this has been a safe election,” said Nicole DiRado, administrator of the Union County Board of Elections. “We’re relieved that it’s almost over.”

State officials were heartened by the early audit results.

“The results should give voters across New Jersey confidence that the election was held freely and fairly and that the system broadly worked as it was supposed to work.” Alicia D’Alessandro, spokeswoman for the Department of State.

The mostly mail-in election, ordered earlier this year by Gov. Phil Murphy as a public-health measure in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, placed huge administrative burdens on the county workers and left them little time to devise new voting and canvassing procedures. Election workers also found themselves confronted by confused — and, at times, hostile — voters who resisted elements of the unfamiliar voting regime.

While state law requires routine audits after every election, the lack of paper ballots meant that the audit process in the past usually consisted of merely opening up some voting machines and verifying tallies.

This year, the audit required that workers segregate mail-in ballots into hundreds of “batches,” each from 100 to 300 votes in total. The law ordered random batches to be selected from each congressional district that encompasses part of a county.

Four election board commissioners, two Republicans and two Democrats, were required to observe the selection of votes and, later, the hand-counting process. The whole process is being livestreamed in many counties.

“I look at it as one last hurdle in a year when we’ve had to jump over many,” said Lynn Caterson, a member of the Atlantic County Board of Elections.

A different future?

Although it remains unclear when New Jersey will finally switch to paper record machines — the Legislature first passed a law mandating the switch 15 years ago — the vote-auditing process is likely to become more vigorous in coming years as more counties turn to new machines that can create reviewable paper trails.

In addition to the three counties that recently acquired new machines, the state says six others are testing models and could move ahead soon with the estimated $5 million to $8 million it will cost each to install them.

State law requires that all counties using paper backup machines verify their accuracy with so-called “risk limited audits” that are viewed as more rigorous.

Several counties that have done test runs of newer voting machines are already training to adopt such updated auditing practices.

“New Jersey’s audit law could still use some updating, but audits using the current law are far better than no audits,” Andrew Appel, a computer science professor at Princeton University who specializes in voter security, wrote in September.

County officials have until Dec. 11 to complete their vote audits. The deadline was pushed back a week because workers in several counties were sidelined due to COVID-19 concerns.