New Jersey officials promised years ago to retrofit the state's beleaguered electronic voting machines with verifiable paper records. But now that lawmakers have put off the implausible project for a third time, it looks more than ever like a figment of the political imagination.
State officials say they don't have the roughly $20 million needed to fix the machines in the current climate. They're probably right. But if they ever do come up with the money, they should use it to buy new machines instead.
It's beyond clear now that the Sequoia Voting Systems machines in use in most New Jersey counties - and some in Pennsylvania, including Montgomery County - were an expensive mistake at best.
Philadelphia election officials' diligence in inspecting their ATM-style machines has kept voting problems to a minimum, but paper backup is generally considered a standard feature of secure, reliable voting.
Many states have abandoned the kind of machine being used in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and only seven still have paperless voting. Many experts and officials prefer the so-called optical-scan method often used for multiple-choice tests. Voters mark their choices on paper ballots that are read electronically but available for manual recounting.
Even as New Jersey officials resist a nationwide tide against paperless voting, the Sequoia machines are on trial in Trenton. Plaintiffs in a civil suit allege that the machines are inaccurate and vulnerable to tampering. Their claims are based partly on the alarming findings of a Princeton computer-science professor who said he hacked the machines with relative ease.
New Jersey lawmakers voted in 2005 to require that the state's voting machines produce a paper trail for verification purposes. That was good policy, given the host of valid concerns about the security and reliability of touch-screen machines.
But officials failed to realize then and ever since that complying with the policy requires new machines. Instead, they vowed to bring flawed machines in line with the policy, using technology that didn't exist.
No surprise, that feat has proven to be technically, fiscally, and otherwise impossible. A deadline was set for more than a year ago, and then reset. Retrofitted machines were rolled out for a few tiny elections, but there were performance glitches. Two county elections superintendents and a key lawmaker recently told The Inquirer they were dissatisfied with the jury-rigged models.
The situation reached an especially embarrassing point this month, when several towns had to use old-fashioned paper ballots to carry out obscure fire-district elections.
This week, the Legislature extended the deadline for retrofitting the machines indefinitely - all but admitting that the project is hopeless. Its next step should be to officially give up on the effort, so that any funds spent in the future go toward new, reliable machines, not further efforts to patch up the Sequoias. The state has spent enough time and money on this mistake.