Money, law, technology vie in N.J. voting-method battle, by Cynthia Henry, Philadelphia Inquirer, 02/01/2009
Efforts to ensure that all of New Jersey's voting machines produce a paper record of votes generated responses ranging from "too expensive" to "don't fix what ain't broken" last week as the issue played out at polling places, in court, and at the Statehouse.
A year behind a legislative deadline, the state is struggling to find the money and the right technology to back up machine-cast votes with a paper trail voters can see.
Only seven states, including New Jersey and most of Pennsylvania, still use paperless voting systems.
"Why is the state fighting citizens?" asked Stephanie Harris, a plaintiff in a lawsuit over voting-machine security that went to trial in Mercer County last week. "Financial issues have become the biggest obstacle to a voter-verified system."
On Jan. 5, Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells authorized retrofitting machines used in 18 of 21 New Jersey counties with printers that would provide a record in case of glitches or recounts. A small number of reconfigured machines were used with mixed results Tuesday and Wednesday in local elections in Passaic, Monmouth and Somerset Counties.
But legislative and court actions could render the machines' performance moot.
The Assembly's State Government Committee decided Monday that New Jersey could not afford to continue with the retrofitting in the weakened economy. Gov. Corzine diverted $19 million budgeted for the $26 million project back into the state's general fund last month.
Not that it matters, according to Committee Chairwoman Joan M. Quigley (D., Hudson). The technology isn't up to snuff anyway, she said.
In an August demonstration, Quigley said, a manufacturer's representative could not operate the printer that would allow voters to view their choices.
"I'm hoping, while we're waiting for the money to arrive, they can improve the technology," she said.
The Assembly could vote as early as Thursday on a bill to delay machine upgrades until the economy improves.
Also at issue are the security and reliability of the state's Sequoia AVC Advantage 9.0 voting machines. Pennsylvania's Montgomery County also uses Sequoia machines.
Plaintiffs in a four-year-old civil case contend that the Sequoia model is prone to errors and easy to hack. They hope to persuade New Jersey to replace it with paper ballots scanned by computer, which provide evidence for a recount, said Irene Goldman, chair of Coalition for Peace Action in Princeton, a party to the suit.
"Nobody wants to retrofit these machines," she said. "It's just wrongheaded."
Elections Superintendent Laura Freytes, however, said Passaic County had used Sequoia machines since 2005 with no lost votes, evidence of tampering, or other problems.
On Tuesday, the county tried Sequoia machines modified with printers in a school bond election. The printers jammed periodically, and at one polling place all three machines went down at once, Freytes said.
The new process also created longer waits to vote. "And this was just a yes-or-no question," Freytes said.
Adding that new technology intimidated some voters and poll workers, she said, "They should leave the voter machines as they are."
Quigley said she worried that voters' reviewing a long ballot through the printer's small window would significantly slow the process. She also thinks voters will expect a receipt, like the one they receive at an automatic teller machine, which the printers do not provide.
In Monmouth County, school bond voting went smoothly for more than 600 residents who were offered written instructions and demonstrations of the retrofitted Sequoia before entering the booths, said Hedra Siskel, elections superintendent.
But she, too, thinks "the state should leave the machines alone."
Since 2004, six states have passed laws to eliminate direct-recording electronic machines. No state since 2006 has retrofitted such a machine with a printer, said Sean Flaherty, a researcher for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Verified Voting Foundation. New Jersey twice delayed compliance with its voter-verification mandate, in part to give Sequoia time to design a printer.
Most states are leaning toward optical or digital scans of paper ballots, a method New Jersey county party chairs dislike, Quigley said. States report that as many as 10 percent of voters fill the ballots out incorrectly, she said.
An optical-scan system to serve all of New Jersey could cost as much as $122 million, according to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.
In Mercer County, Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg wanted no talk of optical-scan and other systems.
"Is it my role to determine the alternatives or is it the secretary of state's?" she said. "At the end of the trial, I'll give you some of my thoughts on this."
Feinberg pledged on the trial's opening day to keep arguments focused on the security and accuracy of the one Sequoia ADC Advantage model.
The case, which could last four weeks, is based largely on experiments in 2007 and 2008 in which Princeton University computer-science professor Andrew Appel and his team broke into the machines in "about seven minutes, using simple tools," they said. The state defends the machines' integrity with its own expert, Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Michael Shamos.
Voters including Harris, of Hopewell, Mercer County, joined the suit because of experiences at the polls. In 2004, Harris testified, an electronic machine failed to register her vote three times.
After the fourth try, she testified, a poll worker told Harris, "I think it counted." Since then, Harris said, she has voted mostly by absentee ballot.