Buggy software, hardware thwart NJ efforts for early voting

Jeff Pillets | January 12, 2021 | NJ Decides 2021, Politics
Trying to build new system on top of what currently exists would be like building a new house on structurally unsound foundation
Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Oct. 29, 2020: Elcy Londono prepares mail-in ballots for counting in Linden, Union County.

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.

Officials across New Jersey agree that 2020’s mostly mail-in election — the biggest and most complex in state history — was also the most successful, as 4.5 million people voted safely in the midst of a public-health crisis.

Lawmakers had hoped to build on that success by moving quickly with a plan that would bring early in-person voting to New Jersey as soon as this year’s gubernatorial primary, scheduled for June 8.  Early voting already takes place in more than half the states, but for now the bill is stalled.

To make early voting happen, New Jersey needs to update its voter registration system. That system is a complex web of computer servers and software linking all 21 counties with agencies in Trenton, including the division of elections, Motor Vehicle Commission and central offices for state courts, corrections and human services. It’s supposed to keep accurate track of registered voters and their addresses.

Riddled with bugs

But documents reviewed by New Jersey Spotlight News, as well as interviews with election officials across the state, show that persistent bugs in the state network continue to undermine the voting process and frustrate frontline election workers.

Periodic reports generated by KNOWiNK, the St. Louis-based voting-tech startup that receives $1.6 million a year to maintain the state system, list dozens of recurring technical issues that stymied county election workers as they worked to send out mail-in ballots and upload votes.

The system, for example, was spitting out bad addresses for some voters and rejecting efforts to enter the correct information. Voters in the same town, even the same apartment building, were placed in different congressional districts. Many addresses did not follow standard post office form and had to be corrected.

Workers had trouble removing inactive voters from the system or adding newly registered voters. At times, signatures of some people who registered online or at motor vehicles offices, disappeared.

Falling down on the job

The system was unable to generate routine information about polling places and poll workers. Information about vote bearers, people who are authorized to deliver ballots for another voter, proved spotty, even disappearing at times.

When counties faced deadlines to mail out ballots or begin counting and uploading votes to the state system, they sometimes dealt with balky programs that refused to accept data, or uploaded it at a glacial pace. Teams of ballot processors in some counties fell behind as they worked through the glitches.

In Camden County, for example, officials said they were alarmed to discover that some 3,000 votes they thought had been uploaded had, in fact, never made it into the state system. Officials, realizing their vote totals were out of whack, rushed to hand-canvass about 74,000 processed ballots to find the batch that had never been uploaded.

“It was a nightmare,” said Rich Ambrosino, a member of the county board of elections. “But fortunately we were able to catch it and correct it.”

Ambrosino said various issues with the state system persisted most of the year, from primary election season through Election Day in November. Many of the problems, he said, were small but frustrating such as glitches in various reporting functions.

Still, he said, bigger problems persisted, such as people who believed they registered online discovering that their names never made it onto the voter rolls.

“It seemed there was always some issue creeping up with the system, ‘‘ Ambrosino said.

Tossing out votes

In Atlantic County, a judge earlier this month threw out hundreds of votes and ordered a new county commissioner race after voters received erroneous ballots. The county clerk, who prepared and sent out the ballots, blamed bad information from the state computers.

Local officials say it was a miracle more votes weren‘t lost.

“Day in, day out, we were being asked to work with bad registration data,” said Lynn Caterson, a member of the county elections board. “Until we get these bugs worked out, the counties won’t have the confidence we need to add on another layer of technology for early voting.”

Early in-person voting would require each county to buy electronic poll books that would replace the large paper books that voters sign when entering the polls. Such e-poll books, which resemble a personal computer or tablet, would update voter-registration data in real time and lock out anyone from voting twice.

But the new poll books would be expensive — an estimated $20 million to $30 million for the entire state — and require new training for poll workers and the creation of several new “voting centers” in every county. Hard-pressed local officials say such major changes would be a heavy lift on top of last year‘s unprecedented mail-in election and doubts about the reliability of the state registration data.

“It wouldn‘t be fair to ask us to buy into a whole new round of technology when they haven‘t got the old system nailed down yet,” said Mary Melfi, the Hunterdon County Clerk.

Blocking help-desk records

State officials declined to answer questions or release information about the state registration system first requested by New Jersey Spotlight News over six weeks ago, including records of payments made to KNOWiNK and computer help-desk records that detail recurring problems with the system.

They have, however, acknowledged the complaints from the counties and say they are working with local officials to make necessary fixes, even as they point out that the unprecedented election overall proved to be a success.

In 2018, KNOWiNK inherited a 10-year contract to service the voter registration system when the original vendor went out of business. That contract grew to $30 million after recent security upgrades that successfully protected the system against the kind of malicious hacking widely reported in the 2016 election.

KNOWiNK did not respond to requests for comment.

The nation’s leading provider of electronic poll books would be a leading contender to supply the new equipment in New Jersey, despite several high-profile stumbles in recent years.

Problematic poll books

In 2019, Philadelphia was forced to abandon its planned use of KNOWiNK’s poll books only two months before an election. “The city should not use this electronic poll book system in an election unless there is complete confidence that it will perform reliably,” Stephanie Tipton, chief administrative officer, wrote in a letter to the city‘s election board.

The company’s poll books were also blamed for long delays in the Georgia state primary that year. One year later, in June 2020, KNOWiNK‘s tech was identified as the culprit in an Election Day meltdown that caused long lines in some Los Angeles voting precincts. The firm has said the problems were quickly rectified.

Work to make early voting a reality in New Jersey stalled last week when legislation that would have opened polls two weeks before Election Day was put on hold. The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, a physicist at Princeton University’s Plasma Physics Lab, said technical flaws in New Jersey’s voter registration system were a main reason he pulled the bill.

“It‘s clear that the system we have in place isn’t quite ready to accept the new layer of technology that early voting would require,” Zwicker said in an interview last week. “Local election officials need to have confidence that the voting rolls, and all the information in the state system, is accurate. At this point, they don’t.”

Zwicker said he will work with state and county election officials to address issues with the registration system, as well as questions about training poll workers and procuring poll books. He‘s hopeful that he can reintroduce legislation in time to roll out early voting by this fall‘s general election.

“It‘s a big election for us,” he said. “New Jersey voters deserve to have what voters across the country already have.”

Currently, New Jersey voters can submit absentee ballots 45 days before an election. The proposed law would open polling places every day for two weeks before Election Day, including Sundays.

The system is used in about 30 states that already have early in-person voting or are putting it in place, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.