KIYC: Union County to begin using newer, more secure voting machines

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WESTFIELD -

New Jersey election officials are taking steps to replace the state’s outdated voting machines, which are vulnerable to hacking. But some experts say the state is making a new mistake in the process.

Voters in New Jersey use some of the oldest, least secure voting machines in America. Ten years ago, Princeton professor Andrew Appel demonstrated the machines could be hacked. They also produce no paper backup, so Appel says, “You can't really recount or audit. Whatever the computer says, whether it's hacked or not, is what you have to rely on.” 

That may soon change. New Jersey election director Robert Giles says all 21 county election boards are on board with transitioning to new machines that produce voter-verified paper trails.

Enter the ExpressVote XL, being used for the first time next week in Westfield, before being rolled out Union County-wide. County election officials let Kane In Your Corner test the equipment, which features a 32-inch touch screen.

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

The interface is familiar. Voters select candidates by pushing on touch-screen “buttons.” But there’s a significant difference. After making their selections, voters print out a paper ballot, which they can review for accuracy through a glass window, before casting their vote. The paper backup is then securely deposited in the machine for use in recounts or to audit machines for accuracy.

Union County election supervisor Nicole Dirado says unlike the current generation of machines, the new model is extremely secure.  “The USB stick that is used to load the contests onto the machine has over 200-bit encryption” she says. “There's two-part authentication required to even open the machine.”   

You might think all of that would make longtime critics like Appel happy. Instead, he says “New Jersey has figured out a new way to get voting machines wrong”.

In August, the ExpressVote, a smaller version of the XL, had a poor debut in Johnson County, Kansas. Because of a software glitch, primary results were not released until 8 a.m. the next day. Kansas election officials say the glitch has been corrected.

The ExpressVote line can also be configured with “AutoCast,” which allows people to vote without reviewing the paper copy. Appel calls that “the permission-to-cheat button” because “you're telling the voting machine that you're not going to look at the paper ballot, so it can print whatever it wants.”

New Jersey election officials say any machines used here will have that feature disabled. Giles says he wants voters to review the ballot because “that’s the whole point of voter-verified.”

Appel prefers letting people vote on paper to begin with. “We have much more confidence that the voter knows what they marked on the ballot if they marked it themselves with a pen,” he says.

But Dirado calls hand-marked paper ballots “a step back,” while Giles says they raise issues of voter intent. “If the voter doesn't fill out the oval properly, or they circle it, or they put a check mark next to that oval, did they intend to vote for that person?”

There’s another obstacle in upgrading voting machines: cost. The federal government gave states $10 million each to improve voter security, but that’s less than the cost of machines for Union County. Giles says he can’t say when every county will be able to upgrade.

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