Activists press for federal support to upgrade NJ’s vulnerable voting machines

Briana Vannozzi, Anchor | September 17, 2019 | Elections

Progressive activists on Tuesday called for an overhaul of New Jersey’s voting system, saying that the lack of a paper backup to the electronic machines at the polls in many counties could undermine the faith of voters that their ballots will be counted.

“This is our most important fundamental right, the right to vote,” said Marcia Marley, president of BlueWave NJ. “And if it doesn’t count, why vote?”

The activists are also looking to put pressure on federal lawmakers to approve $600 million for election security funding at the state level. The allocation has already been approved by the Democratic-majority House of Representatives but has failed to get any traction in the upper house, which is controlled by the GOP and led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican.

Carrying signs that read “Moscow Mitch” and “Protect Our Elections,” the activists gathered outside the offices of the state’s two Democratic senators, Cory Booker and Robert Menendez.

“Robert Mueller explained that the threat of foreign intervention in our elections is very much still alive and probably escalating for the 2020 elections,” said BlueWave NJ member Mark Lurinsky, referencing testimony before Congress by the former Special Counsel to the Justice Department who investigated Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election.

“The problem is Republican leadership, including Senate Majority Leader McConnell, has blocked the bill and consistently refused to allow the Senate to vote on this bill and other election security measures,” said Hanna Mori, NJ state director for Booker’s office.

McConnell has said that federal funding for election security would hinder the right of states to run elections as they see fit.

“Every single member of the Senate agrees that Russian meddling was real and is real,” he said. “We all agree that the federal, state governments and the private sector all have obligations to take this threat seriously and bolster our defenses,” he said during an interview broadcast on C-SPAN.

New Jersey’s voting-machine technology was the subject of a lawsuit and legislators passed a bill in 2009 mandating paper machines, but the requirement was suspended until appropriate funding was available. That still hasn’t come through.

At present, 19 counties use electronic voting machines with no independently verifiable paper trail.

“Right now, we have very old voting machines that have no paper records,” said Ann Rea, co-leader of the Electoral Reform Group at BlueWave NJ.

“What does that mean?” said Penny Venetis, director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Rutgers Law School. “It means when you are walking into the voting machine, it is a leap of faith.”

State reports have recommended paper ballots and what they call risk-eliminating audits to check them. Special training sessions have also been convened for elections employees, including a “tabletop” exercise in Princeton earlier this month where representatives of all 21 counties and others gathered to go over foreseeable glitches or cyberattacks that could hit the state’s election operations.

State officials say that voting machines in New Jersey have never been hacked, but the threat of future mayhem is real.

“Somebody who is either an enthusiast, or has a BA in computer science, and has seven minutes of time and about 20 bucks on their hands would be able to hack New Jersey’s voting machines,” Venetis said.

Providing the fix will not come cheaply, which is why the advocates and others say the money from Washington is needed.

“The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that it would cost $40 million to upgrade entirely to optical scan machines that produce a paper trail,” said Casim Gomez, outreach director for Menendez’s office.