TRENTON — An old technology is new again, as paper ballots are making a big comeback thanks to fears about Russia — and others — hacking U.S. elections.
Voting machines on display at the first-ever Election Technology for New Jersey Now and Tomorrow trade show, held by the Constitutional Officers Association of New Jersey and the New Jersey Association of Election Officials, virtually all incorporated paper ballots, even when the votes were cast electronically.
“Voters continue to want a secure paper trail,” said Cape May County Clerk Rita Marie Fulginiti.
That’s something New Jersey voters don’t yet have, except for those in Warren County.
For years, advocates have been calling on New Jersey to update its direct-recording electronic voting machines, which record votes directly into a computer’s memory, with those that also create a paper trail.
It will cost more than $60 million to replace all the voting machines in the state, estimated Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic.
He has a bill pending in the Legislature that would require counties, when they replace voting machines, to do so with a type that creates a paper trail.
“It sounds like we’re going backwards,” said Mazzeo of using paper ballots. But today’s paper ballot goes hand in hand with high-tech machinery, he said.
And it remains the best protection against hackers, Mazzeo said. Paper ballots can be counted if there is ever a reason to doubt machine totals.
“And with new technology, it’s quick — you can cast a vote in seven seconds,” he said.
New Jersey is in a minority of states that do not create a paper trail in their voting systems, according to BallotPedia.org.
Thursday’s event was designed to let legislators, election officials and others see the latest in voting technology, said Atlantic County Superintendent of Elections Maureen Bugdon, who also is the executive vice president of the New Jersey Association of Election Officials.
She said Secretary of State Tahesha Way, whose department oversees elections in New Jersey, has been supportive of helping modernize.
“During the 2018 general election, several of our counties took part in pilot programs using voting systems that produce a voter-verified paper audit trail,” said Way in a statement. “As part of this pilot program, we have also trained those counties in the use of risk-limiting audits.”
Voting machines on display in Trenton included touch-screen models that create paper ballots as voters press buttons on screens. The paper ballots stay behind glass on the side of the machine, where voters can check to be sure the votes are being printed properly. When the voters cast the votes, the paper ballots fall down inside the machine to provide a paper trail for audits or recounts.
They also included a voting process that starts with a paper ballot voters complete by filling in little ovals next to the candidates’ names, similar to filling out an SAT test sheet. Voters then feed them into an optical reader machine to cast their votes.
Atlantic and Cape May counties both bought their voting machines about 15 years ago, when the federal government was helping fund improvements after the 2000 presidential election identified weaknesses in the voting system and the Help America Vote Act became law in 2002. They create an electronic record that can be retabulated, but no paper trail.
The DRE machines have proved reliable, said Bugdon.
“They are workhorses, and we have confidence in the fact they are secure,” she said. “But it is getting more difficult to find replacement parts.”
She is hopeful the state will help counties buy new machines, and feels voters would welcome “stepping a little further into the future.”
Princeton University professor Andrew Appel has testified before the Legislature, urging it to replace the state’s DRE machines quickly.
He has showed legislators how they can be mistakenly programmed incorrectly, which results in incorrect vote totals (as happened in Cumberland County in 2011) and how they can be hacked.
Appel was there looking at all of the equipment but declined to comment on which he felt worked best, saying he had to spend a lot more time examining them.
In addition to voting machines, vendors showed electronic poll books, which would allow poll workers to see the most updated information about a voter and allow counties to avoid having to publish poll books; and electronic sample ballots, which can include a much wider variety of information about a candidate and the office he or she seeks.
“This is a beautiful tool,” said Fulginiti of the digital sample ballot, which showed people photos of candidates and detailed information about them, as well as details about the office they were seeking.
Paper sample ballots, which by law must be mailed to every active voter, have room for much less information, Fulginiti said.
“I’m here looking for what’s new in technology and useful for voters,” said Fulginiti. She said purchasing decisions would be made by the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders.
“That would be a bonding situation,” she said.