Can voting machines be hacked? One expert says yes. Courtesy Andrew Appel
Susanne Cervenka and Ryan Ross, Asbury Park Press

TRENTON – A decade after New Jersey voters were promised more secure voting machines, some districts will receive new machines through a federally funded pilot program.

Voters in Gloucester, Union and Essex counties have already seen new machines, and Passaic County intends to join the pilot this year. Meanwhile, Bergen County officials are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Robert Giles, director of the state Division of Elections, wrote to county election officials in September to explain one of the initiatives — the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail pilot.

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“This pilot program will afford counties the opportunity to purchase and test new VVPAT voting machines,” Giles wrote. “The goal of this pilot program is to assist counties to begin the process of transitioning from their current paperless voting systems to the new voting systems that produce a voter verifiable paper record of each vote cast.”

Why replace voting machines?

The program rolls out in a climate of heightened concern over ballot security.

“It’s a step forward; there are better ways to do it, and worse ways to do it,” said Professor Andrew Appel of Princeton University about the upcoming replacements.

Appel was a part of a team of computer scientists and professors who demonstrated how AVC Advantage machines were vulnerable to tampering. The examination found it takes just under seven minutes to replace memory in an AVC Advantage machine with fraudulent software. The authors recommended a solution – optical scan voting, a system that uses a scanner to read marked paper ballots.

Edy Guacamaya, who works for the Bergen County Board of Elections, delivers a replacement voting machine to the polling location at Five Star Premier Residences of Teaneck in November 2016. (Photo: Jennifer Brown/special to

New Jersey’s voting machine technology was the subject a lawsuit in 2004, which ultimately inspired legislation for machines to provide voter-verified paper audits.

A Mercer County farmer named Stephanie Harris sued after a malfunctioning AVC Advantage model machine left her and poll workers alike unsure if her vote had been counted.

Despite their publicized findings, Judge Linda R. Feinberg ruled in 2010 that the state’s voting machines were “safe, accurate and reliable.”

At the same time, the judge also ordered that the AVC Advantage machines not be connected to the internet.

Where’s the money coming from, who gets it?

Last summer, New Jersey publicized its $10.2 million plan – including nearly $9.8 in congressional appropriations – to launch election security initiatives. The funds became available through an act of Congress in spring, distributed by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

The grant won’t cover the cost of replacing the state’s direct-recording electronic (DRE) machines, since the award will fund other initiatives as well.

“The whole point of the pilot is to start small, let counties use the equipment, figure out how the voters are best going to interact with it, how the poll workers are best going to interact with it, before trying to roll them out countywide,” Giles said.

Counties may apply for grant funds once they undergo physical security and cybersecurity assessments conducted by Homeland Security. Each county will conduct their purchasing, and the equipment will be evaluated by a state committee, which includes two certification technicians from the Division of Gaming Enforcement.

Patricia DiCostanzo, Bergen County Superintendent of Elections, said the county has 1,200 machines, and even the highest grant award will not replace them all.

DiCostanzo said she’s waiting to see how the models, already given the state’s blessing, perform before purchasing any for Bergen County.

“I’ll be honest, we love our machines [AVC Advantage], and there have been no issues for Bergen County with these machines at all during any elections,” said DiCostanzo. “I’m going to take a wait-and-see attitude.”

Passaic will be joining the pilot this year, said Sherine El-Abd, superintendent of elections. The county will go out to bid for new machines for the pilot.

“They [bids] might be rejected if the machine we pick is not certified by the state. The state is setting the guidelines,” said El-Abd.

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Select districts in Gloucester, Union and Essex counties conducted pilots in November, and four locations in Mercer County held a pilot during a school election in December. Three different pieces of equipment were used, and subsequent audits are being completed.

So far, Union and Warren counties have purchased new equipment.

Participating counties are required to undergo a risk-limiting audit of their machine purchases for the pilot, according to a Sept. 4 memo to county election officials. Overtime, additional temporary staff and vendor expenses will be reimbursed by the state, funded by the federal grant.

Other initiatives funded through this federal grant are a mobile app, cybersecurity training for state election officials, and Americans with Disability Act compliance training and voter registration auditing.

“The way the money is divided up was to touch on all aspects of elections and election security. A lot of it is behind the scenes – cyber and physical security – people may not see that, but rest assured it is happening and counties are doing all they can to protect the process,” Giles said.

What kinds of machines?

Appel and his team have expressed a preference for precinct-count optical scan machines and pre-printed ballots, in place in 37 other states. Voters fill in ovals next to selections and are fed to scanner.

“The nice thing about a hand-marked paper ballot is you are pretty sure that what is on the ballot is what the voter actually marked,” said Appel. “It’s more reliable because there is no computer to be hacked to manipulate what votes get printed on the ballot, and the cheapest way.”

Fewer machines are needed per polling place, especially those serving multiple districts, thus replacement is more affordable, he added.

Mercer County purchased optical scan machines for its pilot.

Union and Gloucester counties purchased a type of machine classified as “ballot-marking devices,” where voters use a touchscreen to vote, and verify selections on a printed card.

But printing out selections isn’t as reliable, since voters don’t always review them thoroughly, especially on down-ballot party voting where they don’t remember names, Appel said.

“If somebody were to hack the ballot-marking device to make it print out choices other than what the voter elected, most voters wouldn’t notice,” said Appeal. “Those that did notice, they can tell the poll worker their ballot is marked wrong and it will be voided and they are given another chance. It could have been cheating for the other voters.”

Why voter verified paper audits?

Dubbed “voter-verified paper audit” or “voter-verified paper records,”  this method allows voters to confirm their choices on a paper printout in the booth, which is then deposited and stored in the machine or lockboxes. Those stored backups would only be counted in the event of the results being challenged, suspected fraud or if the digital system malfunctions.

Experts say the paper backups are useful when election results need to be verified.

Giles said the term has led to some confusion.

“You don’t get to leave with your ballot. I think that’s important for people to understand because they hear ‘I’m getting this receipt or I’m getting this paper trail’,” said Giles. “It’s not a receipt like you get at the grocery store.”

The state Legislature responded to the questions raised by the Mercer County lawsuit by passing a bill in 2007 requiring a “voter-verified paper record,” recording votes cast but not the identity of the voter. While the new law required paper backups by 2008, the existing machines’ inability to be retrofitted with printers and lawmakers balking at costs, the transition never happened.

DiCostanzo said a lot goes into the logistics of how to handle the paper audits.

“People want a paper trail, and I understand that. But there’s a process,” said DiCostanzo.

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