PAST TIME FOR A PAPER TRAIL

I voted today as I hope most of you did.

Pressing those buttons didn’t take much time but it was the culmination of a long process that began last year, with learning about the candidates, reading up on the issues and giving serious thought to the choices presented.

I fulfilled my civic duty. How I wish the state would do its part.

I am talking about providing us with voting machines that will ensure that the choices we make when we go to the polls and step behind the curtain are the ones that are reflected when the votes are tallied.

I never understood why we got rid of the old machines with the levers, which were immune to cyberattack and whose results could be readily verified. I don’t know what would be the best kind of voting device but it is clear that we need something other than the electronic machines we now use.

It’s not that I really expect tampering with the results here in Essex County, where I live, or in any other part of the state. But the problem remains–here as elsewhere–that if tampering were to happen, it would be almost impossible to detect.

We have lost a lot of faith in our system of voting (and we did so long before we became aware of Russian meddling) because we learned that electronic voting machines can be reprogrammed to flip votes or record them incorrectly and this can be accomplished remotely.

Yet New Jersey continues to rely on a paperless and unverifiable voting system and it is an outlier in this regard.

According to Verified Voting, a nonprofit that advocates for laws that promote the accuracy, transparency and verifiability of elections, our state is one of a mere handful that is almost entirely (20, of 21 counties, excluding Warren) dependent on a paperless and unverifiable electronic voting system, in which Direct Electronic Recording, or DRE, machines record votes directly onto computer memory without any paper record. DRE systems are thus “especially vulnerable to undetectable and uncorrectable errors in the vote count.”

DREs were once much more common but increasing evidence of their susceptibility to tampering and their inability to be audited has driven down their use, at least without a paper ballot backup.  According to Verified Voting, only 25% of voters nationwide cast their ballots on paper in 2006 but that number has risen to more than 70%. Some states that still use DREs back them up with a paper ballot, at least in some areas, if not statewide.

Aside from New Jersey, the only states that continue to use DREs exclusively without paper ballots are Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina and Delaware.

It did not have to be this way.

In 2005, the Legislature overwhelmingly passed A-44, which Gov. Richard Codey signed into law in early 2006 as P.L. 2005, c.137, which requires that “each voting machine shall produce an individual permanent paper record for each vote cast, which shall be made available for inspection and verification by the voter at the time the vote is cast, and preserved for later use in any manual audit.” January 1, 2008 was the do-by date.

We are nearly 10 years past that and still no paper trail.  It is quite expensive to either buy new machines or retrofit the existing electronic ones and the counties, which pay for the equipment, balked at the cost. So the law was put on hold until state or federal funds were made available for the purpose.

The Brennan Center for Justice has estimated that the cost to replace all DRE voting machines with optical scan machines, which read paper ballots, and ballot marking devices would range from $130 million to $400 million. That is a national figure, encompassing approximately 43 million voters in 40,000 districts across 14 states who currently use paperless DREs.  Obviously, the cost for New Jersey alone would be a fraction of the total.

If the need for a paper trail was not clear enough, it is reinforced by another New Jersey law whose implementation has likewise been stalled by the lack of a verifiable system.

S-507 requires random, mandatory audits of voting results to verify that the electronic machines are accurately recording and counting the votes. A team of independent professionals is to oversee “random hand-to-eye counts of the voter-verifiable paper record” by county officials. The margin of victory determines the extent of the audit, with closer races triggering expanded scrutiny.

The landmark measure, hailed as a national model for ensuring the integrity of elections, was designed by the New Jersey Citizens Coalition on the Implementation of the Help America Vote Act, with the assistance of a political scientist, experienced election integrity advocates from states that have election auditing laws and other experts and advocates. NJ Appleseed was a member of the Coalition and Executive Director Renee Steinhagen was its Coordinator.

In January 2008, Governor Jon Corzine signed S-507 into law as P.L. 2007, c.349, codified at N.J.S.A. 19:61-9, saying it “furthers the public confidence in the accuracy and conduct of our election process” and noting that “no other state has provided an independent audit team with the level of responsibilities and expectations set forth in this legislation.”

Corzine also mentioned that one day earlier, he had approved a bill that extended the deadline to implement paper-backed voting and until that occurred, it was unlikely that the audits could be done.

So New Jersey has two laws meant to safeguard the vote, both enacted years ago and neither able to go into effect for lack of money to pay for a paper record. Or more accurately, for lack of will to allocate the funds needed to pay for a paper record.

Yet another legislative effort to address the problem is pending:  A-4619, introduced in February, which would mandate that every voting machine bought or leased after its effective date produce an individual permanent paper record for each vote cast. Its Senate counterpart is S-3137.

No committee vote has been held in either house but on October 26, the Assembly Judiciary Committee held a discussion-only hearing on the security of voting machines generally and on A-4619.

Princeton University computer science professor Andrew Appel testified “you can’t use paperless touchscreen voting computers and trust them not to be hacked,” calling it “the fatal flaw of that technology; and pretty much everyone knows this now.” Appel described how a rogue program quickly and easily loaded onto a DRE can cause it to incorrectly tally votes in a way that cannot be detected by the voter or by anyone who checks the machine before or after Election Day. No Internet connection is needed and anyone with a Bachelor’s degree in science has the capability, he asserted.

He recalled a 2011 incident in which a voting machine program flipped the votes for two Democratic Committee candidates in Cumberland County’s Fairfield Township. Because it was a small election, done on a single machine, it was possible to obtain an affidavit from every voter and check the result. It was not determined whether it was deliberate but the judge who ordered a new election said he suspected that something improper or even criminal had occurred and he encouraged the Attorney General to conduct a criminal investigation of the matter. Though it was possible that human error was to blame,  “it stretches my belief of common sense and reality,” to believe that, wrote the judge.

Appel urged switching to optical scan machines, which enable quick tallies but have the safeguard of a marked paper ballot. Warren County now uses them as do most states, including New York. He rejected the idea of Internet voting, at least with present technology, because of “hackability” at both ends—the computers from which votes are cast, as well as the machines that tabulate them.

The Princeton-based Coalition for Peace Action urged that A-4619 be amended to specify use of optical scan machines and set a date certain by which funding would be appropriated

Whatever the outcome of today’s election, we will soon have a new Governor and it is likely to be Democrat Phil Murphy.

Murphy has promised to remove barriers to voting by making it easier to register, allowing early voting and even allowing 17-year olds to vote in primaries if they will turn 18 by Election Day.

I applaud his promise to make sure that more of us are able to effectively exercise our right to vote. Let us hope that he makes it a priority to protect the integrity of our votes once we cast them. Laws are already in place to do that. All we need now is for the state to put its money where its legislative mouth is.

 

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