KIYC: New Jersey’s voting system among most vulnerable in the US

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Is it possible for hackers to steal this year’s election? A Kane In Your Corner investigation finds New Jersey’s voting system remains among the most vulnerable in the country. And experts say hackers would only have to tamper with one or two voting machines statewide to create doubt and unrest, a situation most nearby states could avoid.

When New Jersey voters go to the polls next Tuesday, most will cast ballots on some of the oldest machines still in use in America.  

Robert Giles, New Jersey’s election director, says “when the machine is used as it’s meant to be used, it’s accurate and reliable.”

But Princeton professor Andrew Appel, a national expert on election security, disagrees. Ten years ago, he first demonstrated how the machines could be hacked, programmed to switch votes from one candidate to another. “There would be no way to know and no way to recount,” he says.

That’s because New Jersey is one of only five states where there’s no paper backup. “Whatever the computer says, whether it’s hacked or not, is what you have to rely on,” Appel says.

RELATED: DefCon 2018 Voting Village Hacking Report
RELATED: Vote report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine

New Jersey election officials insist the machines are safe, in part precisely because of their age. Since the machines can’t be networked, hackers would have to tamper with one at a time. “Some of these attacks, yes, you can do them in a lab,” Giles says. “But are they viable attacks in the real world? And they really aren’t.”

If New Jersey’s old machines can’t be trusted, what system would be better? Many experts say the answer lies in even older technology: paper. Forty-five states now use some form of paper ballots, including Connecticut. Connecticut’s secretary of the state, Denise Merrill, says the paper ballots provide “assurance that we’ll be able to check afterward.”

Paper ballots aren’t completely tamper-proof. Because hand-counting is so time consuming, Connecticut, like most states that vote on paper, uses high-speed scanners or tabulators to count the vote, and they are vulnerable to hacking.

As with New Jersey voting machines, hackers would have to have physical access to the machines to do it.  Connecticut mitigates the risk by conducting random audits. 

“We choose a percent of the ballots for a random audit here in my office and we compare and make sure that everything adds up,” Merrill says.

Voting machines are only half the battle. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says 21 states had their online voter registration records targeted by Russian hackers in 2016. Connecticut was among them, New Jersey was not. In just a few minutes on the dark web, Kane In Your Corner found tens of millions of voter registration records for sale, although it’s possible some might have been legally obtainable as public records. 

Coming up Thursday: New Jersey is in the early stages of upgrading voting machines to allow for paper backups, but some experts believe they could be going about it in the wrong way.

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