Are NJ’s voting machines vulnerable to hacking?

In his Princeton University office, computer science professor Andrew Appel held up a small computer chip from a New Jersey voting machine. It’s the program that tallies your vote behind the curtain, inside the polling booth. It’s used in every single voting machine in 18 out of New Jersey’s 21 counties. It’s also outdated technology, and if you really wanted to, it’s not all that difficult to hack.

“If you put a fraudulent program that adds up the votes a different way, you can install it in the voting machine by prying out the legitimate chip in there now and installing this fraudulent chip in the socket,” he said.

Appel knows because he did it. Almost all of New Jersey’s 11,000 computerized voting machines are AVC Advantage systems. The Mercer County Board of Elections has a warehouse where the systems have been decertified in most of the country, but not here.

New Jersey is one of just five states that exclusively uses paperless machines. They record the vote on a digital hard drive, but they don’t leave an independently verifiable paper trail.

That’s why Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio introduced a bill requiring that any new voting machines purchased by the state use paper ballots.

“When you have a paper ballot and a paper record from your vote, that’s what can be used. You can look at it to see that the vote is what you actually entered and that can be scanned and tabulated,” said Muoio.

At least ten states use a combination of electronic and paper. Muoio said it’s not a mandate to replace every machine immediately, because the state doesn’t have the money to appropriate. That could cost up to $20 million. She’s hoping federal funding will become available to help, like it did for the current fleet of machines.

“Especially with the information we’ve received with the past election over the past two years, information of the potential hacking of various states and machines. I think our vote is worth is having a verifiable paper ballot we can then use,” she said.

But in all fairness, you’d have to get past a number of hurdles to complete the hack. It took Appel two weeks to study the machine and create fraudulent software. After that, you’d need access to the machine to unscrew the circuit board and replace the chip.

“So you wouldn’t do it on voting day, you would do it five years ago before voting day, you do it last week. These voting machines sit in the warehouses all year in between elections and so some insider could do it there. They’re delivered to the polling place the Thursday before the Tuesday election,” he said.

The Assembly Judiciary Committee will hear discussion on Muoio’s bill Oct. 26. The issue of voting process integrity seems to have bipartisan support.

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