Two New Jersey towns at opposite ends of the state–Westfield, in Union County, and National Park, in Gloucester–tried out new voting machines on Election Day last week.

Both towns were part of a state pilot program paid for with federal HAVA (Help America Vote Act) Election Security Grants. New Jersey which received roughly $10 million of the $380 million national total, allocated $2.5 million for the pilot, plus another $250,000 for a related pilot to audit the votes cast on the new machines.

The pilot is meant to assist counties in beginning the transition from the paperless electronic voting machines long used throughout the state to machines that produce a paper record of the votes that can be audited and recounted.

In a press release before the election, Gloucester County announced that the pilot would allow it “the opportunity to explore new voting technologies by using the federal grant money, at no costs to Gloucester County taxpayers to purchase and test new VVPAT [Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail] voting systems.”

Both towns in the pilot used ExpressVote XL machines (pictured above), made by Election Systems & Software (ES&S), which work as follows: When voters check in at their polling places, they are given a blank strip of paper which they insert into the machine. They press a touch screen button to mark their selections and then press a button to cast their votes. Their choices are recorded on a USB drive and also printed onto that strip of paper, which is displayed alongside the screen for review so that they can check that their selections have been correctly recorded. Once they approve the print-out, the ballot drops into a secure ballot container behind the machine. The votes are uploaded and tabulated from the USB drive while the paper slips are preserved and can be used for post-election audits of the vote and, if necessary, for recounts.

Union County plans to put the ExpressVote XL into operation countywide by the end of next year, ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Its Board of Chosen Freeholders voted on October 11 to approve the purchase of the machines. According to Westfield Patch, Union will pay $1.9 million for 190 voting machines, two vote tabulators, hardened workstations and hardware and software maintenance, with another $2.9 million more to be paid from the 2019 capital budget.

The ExpressVote XLs will replace the AVC Advantage machines that Union has been using for roughly 20 years and that are used in 17 other counties as well, all but Salem, Sussex and Warren.

The AVC Advantage machines, like the EDGE and iVotronic machines used in Salem and Sussex, respectively, are what are known as DRE, or Direct-Recording Electronic, machines, which record votes directly onto computer memory without any paper record, making them especially vulnerable to undetectable and uncorrectable errors in the vote tallies. Without a paper trail that directly reflects the intent of individual voters, there is no way to audit election results to determine whether there has been tampering– whether remotely, via the Internet or by someone with direct access to the voting machines, tabulators or central system.

New Jersey is one of only five states that chiefly rely on DRE, machines, along with Georgia, Delaware, Louisiana and South Carolina.

Just one of New Jersey’s 21 counties, Warren, has been using machines that produce paper ballots that can be audited and recounted, the Avante Touch Screen EVC308FF.

The switch to voting machines that provide a paper trial has been a long time arriving in New Jersey.

There was a long-running lawsuit by voting rights advocates over the issue in state court between 2004 and 2013 that ended inconclusively, along with passage of a law in 2005 requiring machines that produce a verifiable paper trail. That law was put on hold because officials did not want to spend the money, and a second law in 2008 requiring that votes be audited, was also put on hold because the audits cannot be done without paper ballots. All three branches of our government recognized the need for a paper ballot voting system but there has been a lack of political will to pay for it. So here we are, more than a decade later, an outlier among the states in our failure to safeguard the integrity of our elections.

Union County has now decided it is time to spend the money to make its elections more secure and though the machines it has chosen are an improvement on those it is now using, they are not as secure as they should be, according to Princeton University’s Andrew Appel, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University, who has studied voting machines and their susceptibility to tampering, especially those used in New Jersey.

Aware that Union County, as well as election officials in Delaware and Kansas were planning to purchase ExpressVote machines, Appel published a September 14 article on Freedom to Tinker, a website, hosted by Princeton’s Center for Information Technology. The article, entitled “Serious design flaw in ESS ExpressVote touchscreen: ‘permission to cheat,’” is an attempt to warn them off.

It is not clear if Appel is describing the machines used in Westfield and National Park last week. He describes a machine where a blank ballot is fed in and once voters make their selections are spit out for review and fed in a second time.

Yet the ExpressVote XL machines pictured on the ES&S site instead display the vote behind a glass screen and do not need to be fed in a second time.

In any event, as Appel makes clear in the article and as he has testified before the New Jersey Legislature, optical scanners, in wide use throughout the rest of the country, are the best option.

Not only are they “the most straightforward way to make sure that the computers are not manipulating the vote” because voters mark their own choices without the intervention of a machine, but they appear to be less expensive. Fewer machines are needed because voters do not tie them up while making their selections.

In any event, Appel distrusts voting systems where the ballot is marked by a machine rather than directly by the voter, because such systems rely on voters to verify the accuracy of how the machine recorded their choices. But voters are often distracted and in a hurry—because they need to get to work, or to get home at the end of the day, because there is a line of voters waiting to use that same machine and a variety of other reasons—and they will not always check the print-out thoroughly, or at all, in some cases.

And as Appel describes in the article, there is an especial risk when the ballot is marked by the machine and fed back into it after the supposed voter review.

We are at a critical point now, with county election officials in New Jersey seriously looking at replacing the old, vulnerable DRE machines that have made our state a laggard when it comes to protecting our votes, with new machines that produce a verifiable paper trail.

We have  delayed in safeguarding the exercise of what is perhaps our most fundamental right as citizens in a democracy in the face of litigation and legislation prompted by recognition of the vulnerability of electronic voting machines – did you see the news about the 11-year-old who took only 10 minutes to hack into a facsimile of Florida’s voting system last summer?–and despite knowledge of efforts by foreign powers to influence our elections through hacking and other means.

At long last, let us do this now and do it right.

The ExpressVote is an improvement over the DREs. But if we are going to spend millions of dollars to make our votes safer after so long, why not opt for the most secure and reliable system available? If we do not do so now, will New Jersey voters have to wait another 15 years, or longer even, wondering whether our votes have been hacked every time we go to the polls.

The New Jersey Elections Security Act, A-3991, introduced in the state legislature on May 17, required that we start to replace the old machines with optical scanners, paid for through state appropriations, and complete the transition within a few years. Unfortunately, the bill has been amended to no longer require optical scanners, only “a paper ballot voting system” that could include less secure machines. And the revised bill no longer has a timeline: the paper ballot requirement kicks in only when a county decides to replace its machines which could be years from now.

I urge anyone who cares about the integrity of our elections to contact their legislators and ask that they pass the original version of A-3991, and its (as yet unamended) Senate counterpart, S- 2633 or some other measure that requires switching to optical scanners within a defined time frame.

The primary sponsors of the legislation and their contact info are:

Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, 609-383-1388

Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones, D-Camden, 856-547-4800

Assemblywomen Valerie Vanieri Huttle, D-Bergen, 201-541-1118

Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Monmouth, 732-823-1684

Senator James Beach, D-Camden, 856-429-1572

Senator Patrick Diegnan Jr., D-Middlesex, 908-757-1677

The cosponsors are:

Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, 973-377-1606

Assemblyman Jamel Holley, D-Union, 908-624-0880

Senator Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, 908-395-9911

Legislators’ email addresses can be obtained from the Legislature’s website.

You might also want to contact your County Board of Elections and Freeholders to let them know you want an optical scanning system.

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