The New York Times

March 20, 2007


Suit Prompts New Jersey to Reinvent Voting System

By Ronald Smothers


TRENTON, March 19 — With the reliability of the state’s electronic voting machines on trial in Superior Court and under the gaze of the State Commission of Investigation, the New Jersey attorney general’s office said on Monday that over the next few months it would set up procedures to certify that voting machines reliably log votes and produce a paper trail.


The announcement was made by Ann Milgram, the first assistant attorney general, at a hearing in State Superior Court as part of a lawsuit calling on the state to junk nearly 10,000 voting machines now used in 18 of 21 counties in the state.


Under a 2005 state law, New Jersey has until January 2008 to come up with a voting system that creates a verifiable paper trail that can be viewed by voters and reviewed in any recount or after a machine malfunction.


“This is a belt-and-suspenders approach,” Ms. Milgram said after unveiling the state’s plan. “We have been working on this for a while, but we are not starting from scratch, since Ohio, California and Nevada are working on the same thing. But the requirements we will have will go far beyond what other states have in place.”


Judge Linda Feinberg seemed both surprised and pleased with the state’s plans, which she termed “very prudent.” But she expressed concern that the new procedure be accomplished quickly enough to allow for the purchase of new voting machines if the current ones do not meet the standards set by the state.


“At the end of the day we want a system with integrity that is not vendor-driven,” Judge Feinberg said.


Ms. Milgram assured the judge that standards and procedures would be established in two weeks, followed by public hearings, and that they would be ready to be applied to touch-screen machines with a verified voter paper trail by May, including the 10,000 machines in 18 of the state’s 21 counties that are manufactured by Sequoia AVCF Advantage.


Penelope Venetis, a lawyer for the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic, which brought the lawsuit, said after the court session: “It is great that they are taking steps, but I am concerned that it is smoke and mirrors. I think the state is clearly concerned and doesn’t want the judge to have an open hearing and go to trial on this.”


In addition to providing a reliable paper trail, the new certification process would require random auditing of the machines and testing to make sure they can hold up under intense use. Until now only the federal government has required such certification, and adherence is voluntary.


Ms. Milgram said that the company currently providing voting machines had gone through four approaches to retrofitting its equipment, but that the state “was not pleased with them.” The latest and fifth version held more promise, she said.


Ms. Venetis and Judge Feinberg both voiced concerns about whether the three-member State Voting Machine Examination Committee, which advises the state attorney general on such matters, had sufficient expertise in current voting technology. The committee, which by law includes a patent attorney and two mechanical engineers, was established in the 1940s, when pull-lever mechanical machines were considered state-of-the-art-voting technology.


“We need people with the expertise to say that the software in these machines is doing what the company says that it is doing,” Ms. Venetis said.


In addition to the lawsuit, The Record of Bergen County reported on Saturday that the State Commission of Investigation had asked at least three counties — Bergen, Essex and Union — for an enormous number of records about the voting machines.


In a letter to Bergen County, the newspaper said, the agency asked for all bids, contracts, licenses, canceled checks and warranties relating to the voting machines. It also asked for an inventory of the county’s voting machines and a list of all political contributions to Sequoia and other voting machine manufacturers.


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