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Voting machines will lack paper trail
Judge grants an extension on election technology

    As required by Federal law, all voters casting ballots in the presidential primary election early next year will use a fully computerized voting system. But, for New Jersey voters, there will be no physical record of the votes, as the technology used to produce verified paper ballots are not yet deemed reliable enough to be used in a real election, according to an official test conducted by the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

    Citing these concerns, a New Jersey Supreme Court judge ruled last week to grant an extension to Sequoia Voting Systems, despite the fact that the company has thus far failed to effectively retrofit the voting machines it designed for the state.

    Sequoia reports to the state attorney general, who in turn testifies before the New Jersey Supreme Court every two months regarding the progress on the modifications to the machines. Appel said that the attorney general assured the court that no extension would be needed in order to refit the machines. Last week, however, after the failure of the newly redesigned systems, the judge granted the attorney general an extension, making it impossible for the modifications of the voting machines to be completed before the statewide primary elections.

    Sequoia Voting Systems has been working to modify their machines since New Jersey passed legislation in 2005 that set up plans to retrofit the machines to record voting results on physical ballots in addition to keeping electronic records.

    The most important addition to the newly updated Sequoia voting machines is a printing system that provides a physical paper ballot receipt of each voter's selection as a backup to protect against system malfunctions and voter fraud.

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    Andrew Appel, a professor in the computer science department who has studied Sequoia's electronic voting machines explained, "After you make your selections, a paper is printed out, you get to verify it and that ballot gets dropped into a ballot box." This practice, he said, creates a paper trail in case it is determined in a random sample that the electronic results were corrupted.

    Ed Felten, director of the Center of Information Technology Policy and a professor of computer science and public affairs, warned that the current unreliability of Sequoia's machines could present serious problems with voter fraud.

    "There could be a bug or glitch of some kind," he said, "or someone could corrupt [the systems]." Felten said he had done research on similar electronic voting machines made by Diebold Election Systems, controversial for their security issues. "We were able to make a program that could steal votes in an election," he said of the Diebold machines.

    Appel pointed out that there is another type of electronic voting machine technology called optical scan technology that could be used by the state. With these systems, voters fill in "bubbles" on a physical sheet that is read by a computer, like a standardized test answer sheet. The sheet is then saved as a physical record of the votes cast. "It's a simple, robust, proven technology that many states use and it was available many years ago," Appel said.

    Appel has testified before the Supreme Court, advising that the attorney general should abandon Sequoia's currently unreliable systems in favor of the optical scan machines.

    Felten said although it is difficult to predict the occurrence of voter fraud in advance of an election, it is possible that a situation similar to the 2000 presidential election scandal in Florida could occur in New Jersey in the absence of a more reliable electronic voting system. "When the punch card system failed [in Florida], there was still plenty of physical evidence," Felton said. "The new system uses only memory cartridges."

    Felten explained that most electronic voting systems, including the Sequoia ones, use standard memory cards to record votes. Similar memory cards are used by technicians to do system software updates, which present an opportunity to infect a machine with a vote-tampering program.

    In New Jersey, these memory cards are the only record of the votes placed at each machine. "Once on the machine," Felten said, "[a corrupt program] can spread like a virus."

    In spite of his concerns over the current situation, Felten expressed optimism with regard to the New Jersey legislature's eagerness to address the problem.

    "What will happen in NJ remains to be seen," he said. "But I think that the New Jersey legislature has taken a good step in getting their voting machines revised."

    Evan Magruder '08, co-chair of P-votes  an organization that seeks to provide voters with information and encourage voter participation  said he agreed that the situation with the voting machines is troubling but that voters should not be discouraged from participating in the electoral process. "My hope is that most Princeton students aren't too cynical," Magruder said, "We see voting as a civic duty regardless of what could potentially happen."

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