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Few New Jersey Counties Plan to Replace Electronic Voting Machines by 2020

Over a decade ago, New Jersey recognized the threat of paperless voting systems by requiring a paper record of votes. However, the state never set a deadline for counties to replace paperless machines. Eighteen of 21 counties in New Jersey still use direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines that do not produce a paper record.

New Jersey is among 11 states that continue to use paperless voting to some degree.

Last month, the AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues (EPI Center) called every county election office in New Jersey to discuss whether they plan to purchase new voting systems. We spoke with election officials in 15 of 21 counties in New Jersey, representing nearly 78 percent of the state’s population.

Eleven of the counties do not plan to replace voting machines before the 2020 election. Over half of New Jersey residents live in these counties. Many county officials indicated that they were looking at new machines but said they do not have a timeline for buying new machines and have not yet requested funds to purchase machines.

Many officials expressed confidence in the security of their current DRE systems. The only specific concern with DREs mentioned was that federal legislation may not support them in the future.

County officials listed a number of factors that influence their selection of voting systems, including the cost of machines, security, the familiarity of machines to ones currently in use as well as limited capacity to store paper ballots. When considering systems that generate a paper ballot, either by machine or hand, two election officials expressed concern that paper ballots are wasteful.

Three counties in New Jersey -- Union, Middlesex and Warren -- recently purchased ES&S ExpressVote XL machines, a type of ballot marking device, and an additional county plans to buy machines before the 2020 presidential election. Officials cited the similarity of the ExpressVote XL to their existing DREs as a significant factor in their decision.

In the past year, five counties in New Jersey tested ballot marking devices and conducted pilots of risk-limiting audits (RLA) as part of a federal grant of funds to purchase more secure machines. Four other counties indicated they would be interested in holding RLA pilots in the future. Most officials indicated they look to the state for information on RLAs.

Designed to provide statistical evidence of whether a vote result is inaccurate with a high level of confidence, RLAs are less expensive and resource-intensive than traditional recounts. RLAs require an auditable paper trail, highlighting one of the major weaknesses of the DRE systems still used in most New Jersey counties.

At the EPI Center, our goal is to make it easier for people to access scientific evidence and integrate that evidence into their decision-making process. The EPI Center voting security and technology initiative focuses on assisting local, state and federal officials. In many states, county officials are responsible for selecting and purchasing machines and most will make the decision just once in their career. The federal U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) issues guidelines for voting systems, however, they are voluntary and all the machines on the market have been certified to 2005 standards, none have been certified to the 2015 standards. Earlier this year the EAC released draft updated guidelines that establish stricter standards that voting system be auditable and enable evidence-based elections. DRE systems would not meet these new guidelines.

In 2018, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine issued a report, Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy with recommendations. The committee of computer science and cybersecurity experts, legal and election scholars, social scientists, and election officials concluded that all local, state, and federal elections should be conducted using human-readable paper ballots, marked by either hand or ballot marking devices, by the 2020 elections. Ensuring each ballot is recorded in a paper trail that is routinely audited in an efficient, statistically-sound way limits the risk that errors or attacks can affect election results.

The EPI Center is sharing the scientific evidence with local and state officials and urging them to implement voting systems that meet basic security requirements such as auditable paper ballots, voter verification, and separate systems for marking and tabulating ballots. When voters head to the polls in any election – local, state or federal – they need to know their vote will count.