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.
Stephanie Harris says she started using an absentee ballot after an incident at her polling place in 2004 left her unsure if her vote counted.
In the primary election that year, Harris, a farmer in Hopewell, cast her vote in Mercer County. But after she picked her candidates and hit the “cast vote” button, she says that there was not an audible confirmation that verified her vote had been successful.
The poll worker recommended to Harris that she try a few more times. Even though there was no sound, she assumed her vote had gone through. But Harris says she never knew if her vote was counted or if the machines had been infected with malware or were just not functioning properly.
And with no paper record of that specific ballot, Harris said she could not know for sure.
So began Harris’ quest to fortify New Jersey’s voting system, a fight she’s waged in the courts and pressed in the Legislature. Her lawsuits have forced officials to confront evidence that voting machines can be hacked and that paper ballots may be the best method for securing elections. The November elections, due to COVID-19, were the first time Harris saw the paper ballots she had been fighting for finally put into action.
Since that election in 2004, Harris says she has grown to feel that using an absentee ballot, or what is now known as a mail-in ballot, is the only secure way to vote. One that guarantees her vote will be counted.
For years now, Harris and other voting rights organizations have been advocating for increased election security and the importance of a paper trail after learning how New Jersey’s voting machines can be hacked. Some advocates have claimed those machines are not reliable for elections.
“The problem with the DREs (direct recording electronic) that are the paperless voting machines is, not only do you not know whether your vote has been cast, but you don’t know how it has been cast,” Harris said in a recent interview with NJ Spotlight News.
The state and local election officials have rejected claims that voting machines are not safe, stating that they are confident in the voting process and that they have implemented safeguards to prevent tampering. State election officials say that the machines produce reports that allow for verification.
Starting to question the system
At the time she began questioning whether her ballot was cast or not, Harris said she was an average citizen involved with the Coalition for Peace Action, attracted to the group’s rallies and its push for peace. She says that voting is important to the group because it helps them elect candidates that best align with their beliefs.
“If we don’t have the ability to have secure and competent elections, then we have just lost the power to affect change with our legislative branch,” said Harris.
Harris’s voting incident sparked the lawsuit Gusciora v. McGreevey, which determined that voting machines can be hacked by adding malware that can switch a small percentage of votes for another candidate. Experts from the plaintiff’s side also found they could tamper with the machines’ safety seals and also discovered the machines do not produce a paper trail that can be used to audit every ballot.
“I represented thousands of citizens in New Jersey who were voting on the same technology and who could have had problems and never knew it,” said Harris.
She says she never felt fully comfortable when the state started using new voting technology even before the 2004 incident. And since then, Harris and the Coalition for Peace Action have fought to make hand-marked paper ballots the primary way New Jersey votes.
The lawsuit and conversation around the security of voting machines went on for years. In the end, no mandatory changes were enforced.
But as the case was ongoing, in 2005 a bill passed that would require every voting machine to produce a voter-verified paper trail. Officials say that lack of funding has prevented the law from being enforced; additional federal funding is needed to do so.
A hybrid approach
But county officials are aware of election security concerns and some have already upgraded machines. Warren, Middlesex, Union, Gloucester, and Salem counties have machines that have a touchscreen voters can use to make their choice. Then the machine electronically produces a paper ballot that the voter can verify and then cast. Essex County has machines that scan a paper ballot voter fill out for themselves. The rest of the counties have machines that electronically record and cast someone’s vote.
Mercer County clerk Paula Sollami-Covello acknowledges the importance of machines that produce a paper trail.
“We want to see a paper trail with voting machines,” said Sollami-Covello. “Our county will eventually purchase voting machines with a paper trail.”
But Harris says this is not enough and there still can be issues with the electronically produced paper ballots. Voters can just cast their vote without double-checking the ballot that came out, which is why she insists on just using hand-marked paper ballots. She notes that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, paper ballots were mandated and have been successful. The pandemic made their wishes a reality.
Harris and Irene Etkin Goldman, the board chair for the Coalition for Peace Action, started a Voting Integrity Task Force within the organization after the lawsuit took off. The goal was to educate voters and to lobby for the use of handwritten paper ballots in all elections.
Despite the unfounded allegations of mail-in voter fraud this year, Goldman and Harris are adamant that this election season was successful and hope that election officials and lawmakers consider using the same paper ballots to secure future elections. But to also make the proper accommodations for disabled voters so they can vote using a ballot-marking device.
“Voting by mail as a concept turned out to be great, but it’s successful because it is a paper ballot,” said Goldman. “A voter casts their vote and it’s counted through an optical scanner, but then it can be audited, and a human eye can see what a human hand marked.”
Although advocates are pushing for paper ballots to be the primary voting method, county officials are wary about such a drastic change and think that many voters prefer voting on a machine. But they have seen how voters like the vote-by-mail system.
“I think we’re going to see a lot more use of vote by mail,” said Sollami-Covello. “People realized it wasn’t that scary or intimidating.”
County clerks say that although voting by mail has increased popularity, how New Jersey will vote in coming elections depends on how the pandemic plays out and the resources they have. But Harris plans to keep up with what counties are doing and pressuring them along with other advocates to consider using hand-marked paper ballots.
“We’re going to have to remain very vigilant, because after the pandemic we don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Harris.