New Jersey is one of just five states in which almost none of its voting machines have a way to verify that their results are valid.
All the state’s counties but one use machines that record votes directly and only into an electronic memory module. Only small Warren County uses machines that simultaneously record votes on paper, the gold standard nationwide for ensuring that what the computer says is what voters intended.
Last year, New Jersey received a $10 million federal grant to help update its voting systems. The administration of Gov. Phil Murphy instead spent the biggest part of the grant on efforts to increase the number of people registered to vote, including signing up anyone at a motor vehicle agency claiming to be a New Jersey citizen, no license or other documentation required.
Some of the money funded a tiny pilot program with paper-backup voting machines in small election districts, one each in three counties in the state.
These succeeded in producing a verifiable voting record but also resulted in long lines to vote at times. Voters took too long to vote, with their confusion with the new machines reportedly worsened by excessive explanations on their use. Some voters were handed wet or creased paper ballots to insert into the machines, which jammed.
In typical New Jersey government fashion, much more is being spent on the machines than seems necessary. One pilot town spent $10,000 per machine and the state Office of Legislative services has estimated the initial cost of switching to 11,245 updated voting machines would be $100 million. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which strongly supports verifiable machines, figures $40 million to $64 million would be enough.
State officials say voting machines can’t be hacked because they’re not connected to the internet. But their memory modules with the only record of the vote gets connected to computers for tabulation, and a Princeton professor once demonstrated a person could hack the machine itself in seven minutes. That’s not far-fetched, since voting machines are distributed and left unsecured ahead of Election Day.
A case in Cumberland County showed what is possible for a political insider or simply someone who feels any means is justified to achieve the election result they want.
In 2004, a county employee programmed voting machines to award the votes for two popular candidates to others, handing them the victory. Although this was confirmed by an investigation, there was no record of who voters actually had selected. A new election was ordered and confirmed the rightful winners. But the rigging of the election was only caught because the small number of voters in this case made it obvious. There’s no way of knowing how many votes in other elections have gone to the wrong candidates.
State appellate court judges expressed serious concerns about ballot integrity and ordered a review of the state’s election safeguards. The next year, Gov. Jon Corzine signed into law a requirement that all voting machines in the state include a paper backup by 2008. When that deadline came and went with no compliance, the Legislature merely suspended it indefinitely.
Now similar bills languish in the Legislature. Political leaders seem to have little interest in ensuring the integrity and meaning of voting in New Jersey.