Against the best advice of its own technical and ballot security experts, Ocean County this week is expected to award a $2.6 million contract for new voting machines to Toronto-based Dominion Voting Systems.
Public documents reviewed by New Jersey Spotlight News show that staff professionals working for the county Board of Elections raised a series of red flags during a public meeting of the board in late June, warning against the Dominion purchase.
The experts, who had spent more than a year studying the purchase and evaluating competing brands of voting machines, said the Dominion models would be less secure, harder to use for most voters and more prone to mechanical breakdown. Staffers also said it would be harder to train poll workers on the Dominion system than on their major competitor’s machines.
The June meeting ended with a 2-1 vote by election board members in favor of buying machines from Election Systems & Software, the Omaha-based company that has been favored by most New Jersey counties now retooling essential voting hardware.
But this week, Republicans who control the Ocean County Board of Commissioners are expected to bypass the recommendation of the county experts and award the contract to Dominion in what critics say is a move that shows how deeply politics and campaign money influence the administration of elections in New Jersey.
County election officials in the state are preparing wholesale changes to the way New Jersey votes, driven in part by a new law requiring in-person early voting beginning this year ahead of the November elections.
In March, the state ordered all counties to install electronic poll books and voting machines that produce a paper trail, in conjunction with the debut of early voting. Election officials in counties across the state said the new mandates have forced them to make expensive decisions, acquiring new equipment and implementing new voting procedures on the fly. The wholesale replacement of voting machines hasn’t taken place in some counties since the late ’90s.
Records show that the Ocean County Republicans pushing the Dominion system have received tens of thousands in campaign contributions from individuals and a north Jersey firm closely affiliated with the voting machine maker.
The ballot printing and voting tech firm, Election Graphics, Inc., has bankrolled the ruling Ocean County Republican party for years: State records show that the firm and its executives have given more than $155,000 in the past 20 years to Ocean Republicans who hold county offices. The five sitting members of the county commission together received almost $100,000 from Election Graphics and some from its executives.
Ocean County Clerk Scott Colabella, who has recommended the Dominion machines, has accepted $6,800 from Election Graphics since 2015. These include a $1,600 contribution to Colabella last October, at a time when county officials were meeting with various voting machine makers.
Colabella, in an interview earlier this week with NJ Spotlight News, said that Election Graphics owner Adam Perna accompanied a Dominion salesman at some of those meetings and has a long-standing working relationship with the voting-machine maker. Dominion, he said, has certified Election Graphics to service its machines.
Several other officials said it was common knowledge in Ocean County that Election Graphics executives were working with Dominion and showing up at meetings alongside Dominion sales personnel. Court documents from a long-running lawsuit brought by advocates for paper ballots in New Jersey also point out that the machine maker had hired and authorized Election Graphics to service its products.
Colabella strongly denied that his support for the Dominion purchase has anything to do with campaign donations and he said that he respectfully disagreed with county professional staff who advised against the machines.
“I don’t sit around with a chalkboard and keep track of who gives money to the party — I never have anything to do with fundraising,” Colabella said.
Colabella pointed out that Ocean County has used voting machines made by Dominion, and its corporate predecessor, the defunct Sequoia Voting Systems, since 1996 and they have performed well. Ocean County voters have grown accustomed to the machines and could be confused by the change to hardware from a new firm.
Dominion vs. ES&S
After attending a number of trade shows and other exhibitions, Colabella said he has technical issues with the ES&S system. Voters, he said, might be forced to wait in long lines before receiving ballot cards that would then have to be fed into the ES&S system. Other counties that already use those machines, Colabella said, have reported paper jams and confusion among voters.
“I’ve been working in this office for 25 years and have a lot of experience with what the voters need, and they want a seamless process,” Colabella said. “I’m just not comfortable that the ES&S machines will give us that.”
Perna did not respond to a request to be interviewed about his company’s campaign contributions and work with Dominion. Someone answering the phone at the Election Graphics office said they would pass the request to Perna. Dominion Voting Systems also did not respond to calls and emails.
Perna’s company, which provides all aspects of voting machine maintenance, repair and software programming, has in recent years landed millions in public contracts in several counties, including Essex, Morris, Burlington and Passaic.
In 2021 alone, Morris County has paid more than $320,000 to the firm for voting-related services as part of a multiyear contract. State election records show Perna and the company have made more than $112,000 in direct campaign contributions to Morris County officials who also made decisions on purchasing voting machines.
What officials in other counties say
Most New Jersey counties that have switched voting machines in recent years, or are making a change now, said the ES&S system has proven to be reliable and easy to use for voters and poll workers alike. Officials said the machines also provided reliable paper records that are now required by state law.
Officials in Essex, Warren, Hunterdon, Union, Cape May and other counties have all chosen to replace their old machines with ES&S models. After an initial learning curve and a few technical glitches, which were easily worked out, the machines have been a major success, they say.
In Warren County, which bought more than 200 ES&S machines after also considering models from Dominion and other firms, voters tested out the new hardware at the recent county fair. Officials said voters of all ages had no problem loading in long “activation cards” and making their choices on a touch screen. After making their selections, voters hit a “print ballot” button that produced a paper replica of their vote, which appeared behind glass.
The paper ballots, after being inspected by the voter, were released into a locked canister inside the machine.
“Voters picked it up immediately; it couldn’t have gone much smoother,” said Warren County Clerk Holly Mackey.
Nicole DiRado, administrator of the Union County Board of Elections, in several recent interviews with NJ Spotlight News, said the county’s ES&S machines, purchased in 2019 for $5 million, have also been embraced by voters and proven to be reliable and safe.
“We looked around a lot, and we found that this system gave us the kind of one-stop shopping we needed as well as ballot security,” she said.
In Ocean County, technical staffers advising the county reached the same conclusion.
Wyatt Earp, a Democratic member of the Ocean County Board of Elections, who is in favor of the ES&S machines, said Colabella’s support for the Dominion contract ignored the abundant evidence provided by the county’s experts that the company’s machines were inferior.
‘It was clear to all our people’
“We’ve been looking at these machines for years,” Earp said. “It was clear to all our people that the ES&S system would provide the safest, least disruptive voting experience, especially for senior citizens.”
At the June meeting of the election board, Earp’s vote in favor of ES&S was joined by a second Democrat and opposed by board chairman Frank Holman, a Republican who is also chairman of the Ocean County Republican Organization. A third member of the board, Republican Yisroel Schenkolewski, arrived late but said he agreed with staff and indicated that he would vote for ES&S, records show.
But Holman ended the discussion and tabled the issue without taking a second vote, effectively punting the decision to the county commissioners who are expected to vote Wednesday.
In an interview Tuesday, Holman said he had little to do with raising campaign funds and was not influenced by donors. He also defended his choice of the Dominion machine, saying it is cheaper than a competitor and had a offered a better audit trail. Holman said the ES&S system came with a magnetic tape backup instead of paper.
“The law says we need an audit trail established and that is the number one thing for me,” Holman said. “But we’re also saving money.”
Earp said Holman was simply wrong on both counts, pointing out that the ES&S equipment had a robust paper backup and cost the same overall when all essential costs are added in.
“There’s a good reason why all the other New Jersey counties who looked at this are buying the ES&S systems,” Earp said. “For the same money, you get paper and a better machine overall.”
Schenkolewski did not return calls seeking comment about his vote. A county spokeswoman who said initially she would provide information about the county’s voting machine switchover did not respond to further requests.
County records show that four members of the election board’s professional staff endorsed the machines, including staffers who said that ES&S machines would be easier for election workers to learn in time for this fall’s gubernatorial election and the debut of early voting.
Pointing out flaws
James Clayton, who directs the county’s Voting Technology Center, told the election board that the ES&S system more closely resembled Ocean’s current fleet and involved fewer steps for voters. Clayton and others also said Dominion’s ballot printer was similar to consumer-grade toner printers that were easily breakable and frequently ran out of ink, the records show.
Other staffers raised practical issues with the Dominion machines, such as the lack of a voter privacy curtain and an inefficient system for collecting paper ballots that requires poll workers to scoop up ballots and dump them into large bags.
“I can tell you that from the point of view of the election workers, these machines are a lot easier,” said Mackey, the Warren County clerk, referring to ES&S machines.
New Jersey’s fleet of some 11,000 voting machines was among the oldest and least secure in the nation, experts said. In legal challenges brought by voter rights groups, a Princeton professor famously hacked into a typical machine and programmed it to change votes in less than 10 minutes.
Until this year, relatively few voting machines in the state were able to produce an auditable paper trail that is used to test the reliability of election results. Most counties, in fact, used electronic lever machines that had been replaced years ago in other states, including New York.
“We rejected those machines in our state decades ago because they were just not safe,” said Douglas A. Kellner, a co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections, in a recent interview with NJ Spotlight News. “But for some reason Jersey brought the same machines in. The voters deserve better.”
Both Dominion and ES&S, the largest machine makers, have lobbied heavily to influence New Jersey lawmakers. Records show they spent more than $300,000 combined since 2016 to oppose legislation such as the New Jersey Voting Security Act, which promoted the use of paper ballots.
The firms have hired some of New Jersey’s top lobby groups, including Public Strategies Impact and the 1868 Public Affairs firm, which until 2019 featured former Ocean County Republican leader George Gilmore as a partner.
— Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correctly identify Nicole DiRado as administrator of the Union County Board of Elections.