Experts stress importance of paper backups for election security

Lawmakers on the Assembly State and Local Government Committee heard once again just how good New Jersey’s election machine security is.

“New Jersey was one of 12 states to receive a ‘D,'” said Danielle Root, a voting rights manager from the Center for American Progress

Root was one of several election experts to highlight a key deficiency: relying on touch screen election machines that leave no paper record of votes.

“Although it’s good that New Jersey adheres to cybersecurity best practices related to voter registration systems, including training election officials and partnering with DHS [Department of Homeland Security] to perform vulnerability assessments on election infrastructure, the state, as the chairman mentioned earlier, continues to use paperless electronic voting machines,” said Root.

This week, the chair of the committee, Democrat Vincent Mazzeo, introduced legislation to replace the old machines with new optical scanners, which includes a paper ballot the voter completes. His bill joins similar ones under consideration.

The bill would require the state to purchase the new machines to be used in three counties for this November election, and then roll out to the rest over three years. In introducing the bill, Mazzeo mentioned that he won his election to the Assembly by just 51 votes.

“I saw the process in action, and I have to believe after two recounts that it is a good system,” Mazzeo said. “But having said that, is it the best system? I think we have to look at that, and perhaps we have to look at a more secure system.”

Princeton University Professor Andrew Appel studies election machines across the country. He says most states have some sort of paper record of votes and have systems in place to randomly audit elections for accuracy. He says this is needed because computers can be programmed to cheat, and he demonstrated that he could write a program to do just that.

“Voting computers are hackable. Computers connected to the internet, even directly, can be vulnerable to hacking from the internet. Computers are always vulnerable to hacking by people who have physical access to them, even for a limited amount of time,” Appel said.

The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that it could cost the state $40 to $60 million to replace all the machines. Some county clerks testified that each county should determine what system might work best for them, as long as there is a paper record.

“The federal funding that was just made available, this is one of the things that it could be used for, is to replace equipment. So if the state used it for that purpose, it could cover between 15 and 24 percent,” said Edgardo Cortes, election security adviser for the Brennan Center for Justice.

Everyone at the hearing pretty much agreed that there needs to be a valid paper trail for elections, so it appears that what was old is new again when it comes to counting votes.