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New Jersey Deserves a Better Voting System PDF  | Print |  Email
By Pamela Smith, Verified Voting Foundation   
March 25, 2008
This oped was published in  The Trenton Times.

It's exasperating.

The New Jersey Legislature passed a requirement for a voter-verifiable paper record of each vote cast nearly three years ago. The 2005 law required voter- verified paper records by January 2008, an eminently feasible deadline. (It even added a cutting-edge audit law this January, requiring random checks on the paper records to make sure the machines are counting accurately.)

Yet, in spite of these forward- thinking precautions designed to safeguard the integrity of the vote this November, New Jersey's citizens will be voting on a paperless, unverifiable voting system -- one that can't be audited or recounted -- again. The Legislature has just voted to extend, for a second time, the deadline for a voter-verifiable system until January 2009.

Some lawmakers grasp the problem -- the Senate vote of 27-12 in favor of the extension was much closer than the Assembly vote, and some spoke eloquently before the vote about the problem of having no way to confirm that the votes are counted as cast. Though they are learning that verifiable voting systems are available right now, they act as if their hands are tied, as if they don't realize that a solution has been available all along. New Jersey's voters deserve better. Gov. Jon Corzine should veto the delay.

Why hasn't New Jersey done in three years what New Mexico, Connecticut, North Carolina and other states -- even Florida! --were able to do in far less time? The answer lies in how the state attorney general's elections division has chosen to go about meeting the requirement for voter-verifiable paper records.

The state has been hanging onto the older-model push-button electronic voting machines currently used in most New Jersey counties. To keep them and still meet the requirement of the 2005 voter-verified paper record law, the attorney general's office says that we need to attach printers to these machines. But the machines, with or without printers, are far from the best system for New Jersey's voters.

Elections expert David Kimball found in a recent study that the Sequoia Advantage machines had a much higher residual vote rate (that is, the difference between the number of people who turn out to vote and the number of votes recorded) than other system (almost 30 percent of voters using Advan tage machines failed to cast votes for New Jersey ballot initiatives in 2006, while on other systems, the residual vote was only 5 percent to 6 percent). Other researchers have called the full-face electronic machines "the worst voting system in the country." They are the subject of an ongoing lawsuit brought be cause the state cannot prove that they have been properly inspected, nor that they are secure or accurate. When they break down -- or don't boot up properly, as Gov. Corzine experienced in February's primary election -- voting stops and lines form.

The machines were not designed with voter-verifiable paper records in mind; they required an expensive retrofit to make them capable of even connecting a printer and a new printer design that has never been used in elections before. Not only that, but the printers are going for a whopping $2,000 apiece -- as much as four times the cost of printers used in other states. The new printer design failed the first round of tests last year, and -- despite three years of lead time -- still won't be ready for this year's general election.

A better and more cost-effective option is available: a system of paper ballots read and tabulated by optical scanners, with ballot- marking devices to assist voters with disabilities. More American voters nationwide will vote on opti cally scanned paper ballots this year than on any other voting system. And with good reason: They have a consistently lower residual vote rate. The paper ballots are easy to audit and recount. Only one scanner is needed per polling place, versus several of the voting machines now being used. If the scanner should happen to break down, voters can still mark their ballots to be scanned later, thus avoiding long lines due to machine malfunction. As far as accessibility, the ballot-marking systems now far outstrip the paperless voting machines, providing a solution that allows all voters to mark, verify and cast a paper ballot.

With the additional $20 million- plus price tag for the printers, New Jersey will have spent some $90 million on its aging voting system -- far more than necessary. An op tical scan solution would cost only $15 million more than slapping on the printers, and it has been available for years.

The Legislature should mandate that the state convert to opti cal scan. It's not only feasible, it's preferable. New Mexico did so in a matter of months back in 2006. When researchers surveyed poll workers, more than 75 percent of those who had used electronic vot ing machines thought the new op tical scan systems were better. If New Jersey's poll workers can handle the Advantage, they can more easily handle scanners and ballot- markers.

Running elections without verifiable voting systems is not a risk worth taking. In the February primary, machines in six counties had discrepancies in their turnout reports. The cause is still under investigation (while the counties seeking the help of Princeton University computer scientists to independently corroborate the vendor's explanation are receiving threatening messages from the vendor for doing so). The Legislature should take warning from the experience: Without a record of the votes that is independent of any software, there will always be lingering questions about any election.
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