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Union County Tries Out Voting Machines with Paper Backup, First in State

New Jersey’s voting system has been deemed one of the least secure in the country. Yesterday, voters in Westfield were the first to use new machines with a paper trail

Nicole DiRado & John DeSimone
Nicole DiRado, administrator of Union County's Board of Elections and John DeSimone, chairman of the board

Voters in Westfield yesterday became the first in New Jersey to use new voting machines offering greater security with a paper backup, something at least one national organization and many lawmakers lament is lacking.

Officials across the state are eying this effort, as county clerks agree that change is needed. Pending state legislation would require upgrading all machines to ones with a paper trail.

Last month, Union County contracted with ES&S for 190 voting machines and other hardware, software and equipment, making it the first in the state to begin changing over to machines that include a voter-verified paper trail. The county chose Westfield, a town of about 30,000 people, to pilot the use of the machines this year. It plans to use them countywide for next year’s Assembly and local elections.

The lack of a paper trail is a major reason why the Center for American Progress rated New Jersey’s voting system one of the least secure in the country. Most counties in the state use the same kind of technology, where votes are stored on a cartridge and do not have a paper backup that would allow for a post-election audit to ensure the accuracy of the vote count. CAP and the Brennan Center for Justice had urged New Jersey to upgrade all its voting machines in time for the midterms, but some lawmakers said there was not enough time and the prospect was costly.

Nicole DiRado, administrator of the Union County Board of Elections, said the county made the change because its machines are more than 20 years old and it was either spend money on new machines or on repairing the old ones. A 2009 state law requires that new voting machines must include a paper trail that can be audited and the county supports the extra security of such a system, as well, she said.

No more Band-Aids

“We were at the point where we were going to purchase upgraded machines or spend a significant amount of money putting Band-Aids on the old ones, which are very hard to come by,” DiRado said.

The county also chose a system that meets state and federal standards for security.

“While federal certification is not required … the election board felt the extra scrutiny of the system is warranted considering the national conversation relative to election security,” DiRado added.

XL voting machine with paper trail
The Express Vote XL has a paper trail.

The county did a lot of pre-election education of Westfield voters, including in-person and YouTube demonstrations. It may have taken a little longer to vote, but that may have been because voters were reading the state ballot question on the screen before choosing “yes” or “no.” When the polls were crowded at the National Guard Armory, one of several voting locations, officials brought two additional machines in to help move the lines along more quickly.

Election officials did not report any major problems and some voters said they liked the new machines better than the old.

“I was nervous,” said Maggie Picaro after voting around noon. “I’ve had the directions in my bag since I got them. It was great. I really liked the way the ballot came up to show my votes. I guess it’s the old school teacher in me, always telling students to check their work. It’s good to have the paper backup just in case.”

“It’s really working fairly well,” said John DeSimone, chairman of the Union County Board of Elections.

The ABCs of the new machines

Here’s how the machine, the Express Vote XL, works:

When a voter first checks in, he is given a numbered slip allowing him to vote, as well as a blank strip of paper. The voter inserts that blank strip into the machine, similar to inserting a dollar into a vending machine, and that enables the voting machine. The voter touches the screen to choose from among candidates and weigh in on ballot questions. After making all selections, the voter presses a button to print his ballot. The strip of paper now displays all the voter’s choices. After verifying that these are accurate, the voter then hits a button to cast the ballot. The votes are recorded on a USB drive in the machine and the paper ballot is deposited into a box in the back of the machine.

Election officials bring the USB drive to be uploaded and counted at county election headquarters and the paper ballots are stored to be used for any verification or recount, if necessary.

There is also a requirement under the 2009 law that the state Attorney General’s office conduct an audit of at least 2 percent of election districts in each county to ensure that all votes were properly counted. These have not been done, though, because the counties have not been using machines that allow for such audits. DiRado said she is not sure when that may happen but said staff are ready to assist in that process, which according to regulation is to be overseen by state officials.

State officials not worried

While some have been concerned about the security of voting machines for more than a decade, saying that without a paper trail that allows for an election audit, there is no way to ensure that the results recorded by machines reflect the actual ballots cast by voters. State officials have said there is little need to worry about the machines used throughout the state because they are not connected to the internet.

But reports of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 elections, including attempts at hacking into election systems in 20 states, heightened concerns about security.

As a result, Congress made $380 million available to the states to help boost security and New Jersey got $10.2 million for its efforts. The Brennan center complained that money is not nearly enough, estimating it will cost between $40.4 million and $63.5 million for the state to replace all its voting machines.

The high cost of new voting machines, which would be borne by the taxpayers in any county that makes upgrades, is a major reason why officials have been reticent to change their equipment to date. Union County plans to apply for some of the federal money New Jersey received. The county initially spent $1.9 million for 190 machines and other equipment and expects to spend as much as $4.8 million in total by next year, when it implements the new system countywide.

Union County’s system is just one method available, but DiRado said officials thought it was superior to another system they looked at that included both a computerized touch screen and a paper trail.

Other states, including New York, use an optical-scan voting system, which requires voters to fill out a paper ballot by color in circles next to candidates’ names, similar to answering a standardized test. The ballot is then scanned into a machine, where it’s counted, and the paper drops into a box and is held for purposes of an audit or recount.

New Jersey law allows each county to choose its own voting machines, so it is possible that different counties may employ different kinds of technologies as they upgrade their machines in the future.

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