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Voters, don't trust computers

Electronic systems are unreliable; tampering is easy. State and federal action is needed to safeguard elections.

By Carol Suplee

I have made a point, in recent elections, to ask for paper verification of my vote, but I always know the answer in advance: "We can only verify that you voted; we can't show you how you voted."

This year, the poll worker remembered me and declared, "This is an honest shop." I assured him that I trusted the good citizens on duty, but I did not have the same level of confidence in the integrity of electronic voting machines (a.k.a. computers).

I learned later to my surprise that New Jersey already had passed voter-verified paper record legislation in 2005. Who knew? I inquired of several people who are active, informed voters. Not one was aware of the law.

The concept is simple: Each voter can verify the accuracy of his/her vote by viewing a paper copy before pushing the final button. The law set January 2008 as the deadline for retrofitting all New Jersey voting machines with printers, but the deadline will not be met.

In July, Deputy Public Advocate Flavio Komuves, testifying before the State Voting Machine Examination Committee, stated that tests conducted by the New Jersey Institute of Technology revealed numerous flaws and weaknesses, including problems with error messages, locking mechanisms, and seals on printers from Sequoia Voting Systems and Avante International Technology. In August, the state attorney general refused to certify the machines.

A coalition of voter activists, represented by Rutgers University law professor Penny Venetis, first challenged the reliability of electronic machines in a 2004 lawsuit. On Sept. 5, Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg called the situation a crisis. Feinberg had given the state until that day to present a plan. The day arrived - but no plan. Instead, the state requested a six-month extension.

At a Sept. 17 hearing, Feinberg allowed the extension, which means that New Jersey voters will not have paper verification in the February primary. But the judge then considered a more fundamental question: Are the state's electronic voting machines even constitutional? She has scheduled hearings for January. Stay tuned.

Why worry? Consider this: In January, Andrew Appel, a Princeton University computer science professor, bought five second-hand Sequoia machines (the type used by 19 of 20 New Jersey counties) easily and cheaply from a government Web site. A student picked the lock in seven seconds, providing easy access to removable chips containing the Sequoia software.

The Sequoia software can be modified in a variety of ominous ways, the professor said. The machine can appear to be counting votes while moving them from one candidate to another, and to do so on a particular date - like Tuesdays in November. The tampering is undetectable, he noted.

Venetis contends the electronic machines should be scrapped in favor of a paper ballot/optical scan system. Voters mark a paper ballot, it is scanned, and an electronic record is produced.

In 2005, U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D., N.J.) reintroduced a "voter integrity" bill. At last the much-revised bill (House Resolution 811 and the Senate version, Resolution 559) may be slated to be heard soon.

Let's hope it is very soon. Federal legislation is imperative, given the disparity among states' voting laws, the 2000 presidential election debacle, and other voting scandals since then. Thanks to citizen pressure, New Jersey is moving - make that slogging - forward to ensure the inviolability of the election process.

There is no more sacred franchise of a free people than the vote. When that is corrupted, democracy is little more than a charade.