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Bill to postpone upgrade of voting machines advances

Lawmakers followed Corzine's lead: He has already diverted the $19 million elsewhere.

TRENTON - A day before New Jersey's electronic voting system was scheduled to go on trial, lawmakers in an Assembly committee yesterday advanced a bill that would postpone a multimillion-dollar upgrade to 10,000 touch-screen voting machines in use in the state.

Gov. Corzine had already diverted the $19 million targeted at retrofitting the machines with printers that create a paper record of each vote cast. That money is among hundreds of millions of dollars the governor moved into emergency programs to help those hit hardest by the recession.

"That $19 million is going to be used to help people who can't find jobs, feed their families, or heat their homes," Assemblywoman Joan Quigley, the State Government Committee chairwoman, told colleagues before the vote.

Even before money was an issue, officials were displeased with technology being developed to retrofit the machines. Quigley (D., Hudson), who saw a demonstration of the printers, called the apparatus clunky and said it would be a problem for poll workers.

The governor advocated for a small-scale pilot program, a $1 million field test of the existing technology, but that measure failed last month to win Senate approval.

The Coalition for Peace Action, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), and others have challenged the state's use of electronic voting machines. In papers filed for a trial scheduled to begin today in Superior Court in Mercer County, they argue that the machines are vulnerable to hacking, are error-prone, and should be scrapped.

They advocate a return to paper ballots tallied by laser scanners.

Other states have faced similar challenges, and more than 20 have scrapped electronic voting machines. Officials in states including California, Florida and Ohio cited server issues, printer problems, questions about whether correct votes were being registered, and hacking concerns.

In New Jersey, many county political leaders oppose paper ballots because they would give officials less ability to bundle party candidates down a ballot column, which enhances the coattail effect from the election's top draw.

The New Jersey secretary of state, who oversees elections, technically has violated state law since missing the Jan. 1 deadline to have machines retrofitted. The measure approved by the committee yesterday would correct that situation. It next goes to the full Assembly.

The law requiring the state's electronic voting machines to produce a paper trail was passed in 2005, before manufacturer Sequoia Voting Systems had the technology to retrofit its machines.

The deadline had been extended three times in the hope that technology would catch up with the mandate.