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Vol. LXII, No. 28
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
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Coalition for Peace Action Urging “Civil Defense” On Use of Paper Ballots

Ellen Gilbert

Despite the Coalition for Peace Action’s (CFPA) recent victory in its four-year-old court battle to mandate that all votes cast in New Jersey have a Voter Verified Paper Ballot (VVPB) as a legal record, Coalition for Peace Action Chair Irene E. Goldman is anxious. Using the phrase “civil defense” in a recent conversation, she was not referring to air raid sirens or the like. What she was referring to was preparation for the use of paper ballots in the coming November election.

“Every board of elections head in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties should be making plans now,” she observed. “Poll workers are all trained in the use of emergency (i.e., paper) ballots, and there should be preparation for this eventuality.”

Ms. Goldman’s anxiety is based on the apparent slowness with which State Attorney General Anne Milgrim is moving in enforcing the law, initiated by then-Acting Governor Richard Cody, and passed in January of 2008, mandating that all votes cast in New Jersey have a Voter Verified Paper Ballot. The deadline for implementation of the law is January 2009 and, to date, no machines with VVPB capability have been installed anywhere in the state.

Compounding the issue is the fact that several of the Sequoia voting machines used in the February 5 Presidential Primary in New Jersey are believed to have malfunctioned. Princeton professors and computer-security experts Edward W. Felten and Andrew Appel analyzed vote totals from three different Sequoia touch-screen voting machines used in the Pennsauken district, and discovered a discrepancy in the Democratic count. Vote totals reported by the country clerk showed 279 votes were cast: 181 for Hillary. Clinton, 94 for Barack Obama, two for Bill Richardson, one for John Edwards, and one for Joseph Biden. Voting machine tapes confirmed that the total Democratic turnout in the district was 279. But a tape of “candidate totals” showed that Mr. Obama received 95 votes, making the total Democratic turnout 280. The same type of error was subsequently discovered in at least five other counties. Sequoia Voting Systems is one of the largest e-voting machine manufacturers in the United States.

Several county officials, as well as Mr. Felten and Mr. Appel, called for an independent investigation of the voting results. Sequoia responded by saying that such investigations would be in violation of the counties’ licensing agreement for use of the voting system. CFPA scored another victory, however, with Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg’s ruling that the Sequoia voting machines should be subjected to full-scale testing by independent computer experts. The testing, by a team of international computer experts including Mr. Appel, Mr. Felton, and computer programmer Harri Hursti from Finland, was scheduled to begin on June 30.

Representative Rush Holt, who has sponsored two pieces of legislation aimed at improving the reliability of the voting process, voiced his support for Judge Feinberg’s decision. “New Jersey is taking a lead in recognizing that the public has a right to know whether or not our electronic voting machines are reliably counting votes as cast,” he said. “We are long overdue for some transparency in the vote-counting process, and I commend all those who brought this case.” Mr. Holt’s bills include HR811, which proposes a national standard for voting procedures, and HR5036, which suggests that states taking steps to support verified paper ballots should be reimbursed. Zach Goldberg, Mr. Holt’s Communications Director, noted in a recent conversation that it is “not likely that either bill will be passed before this November.”

The independent team examining the Sequoia voting machines have 90 days to do their work and then make their findings public. Ms. Goldman is still worried. “It’s hard to imagine how deeply they can go,” she commented. “They’re working under such stringent conditions.”

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