Author: Penny M. Venetis

Last week in South Carolina, an unknown, unemployed veteran (recently indicted on felony obscenity charges) who did not even campaign, beat a well-financed political veteran in the Democratic Senate primary election. Even the White House called the results “mysterious.” Allegations have been made that South Carolina’s touch-screen computerized voting machines were hacked. It’s a possibility. Study after study has shown that computerized voting systems, like all computers, can be programmed to do what you want them to do — including steal votes. The hacking allegation is speculative. The truth is that we don’t know whether anyone tampered with the voting machines in South Carolina. And that is the problem. Why is this relevant to New Jersey voters? The answer is simple: It can happen here, too. We know that the 11,000 Sequoia Advantage DRE computerized voting machines used in all but three counties in New Jersey can be hacked. Princeton University computer science department chairman Andrew Appel and an international team of computer security experts spent the summer of 2008 examining the Sequoia DREs. They produced a comprehensive report documenting the many ways in which they are vulnerable.

All that is needed to hack into them is a bachelor’s degree in computer science (or the equivalent), a $3 computer chip, a few months time and access. The lock on the voting machines can be picked in under 10 seconds with a paper clip, giving hackers access to the chip that controls the voting computer.

That chip can be copied in a few seconds and its programming easily manipulated with as little as 122 lines of new code. The new vote-stealing program can be installed on a $3 computer chip and inserted into the DRE. The new chip cannot be detected. Professor Appel’s hack was so complete that it was able to re-write legitimate election results in all four areas of the DRE where the results are stored.

It is easy to steal the legitimate chips and replace them with fraudulent chips. Voting machines are left unattended in polling places for up to two weeks before and two weeks after each election. Princeton computer science professor Ed Felten is so alarmed by the accessibility of our state’s voting machines to hackers that every election day he photographs unattended machines in polling places to document the state’s failure to secure them.

The New Jersey Legislature recognizes the vulnerability of our voting computers and passed legislation in 2005 and 2007 to protect the vote. A 2005 law requires that all voting machines produce a printed paper record to be inspected by each voter before casting his or her vote. The printed record also would serve as the official ballot in the event of a contested election or recount. A 2007 law requires that a certain percentage of paper ballots (randomly selected) be hand-counted each election to audit the voting computers.

Those two statutes were considered the “gold standard” when they were passed. Sadly, the statutes have never been implemented, leaving every vote vulnerable to attack.

South Carolina’s bizarre election results should serve as a wake up call to New Jersey voters and candidates alike. The only way we can trust our election results is if our voting computers have integrity. We can determine their integrity only if we vigilantly check election results by auditing voter verified paper ballots. Such audits are in place in most of the country. And scientists agree that the best auditable voting system is the precinct-based optical scanner.

Undoubtedly, these are tough economic times. But it is in these trying times that the cornerstone of our democracy — the right to vote — needs the most protection. Gov. Chris Christie should make it his top priority to implement the voter-verified paper ballot and auditing laws that the public demanded and the Legislature enacted in 2005 and 2007.

Most states have made this transition successfully in only a few months. New Jersey should seek the company of those states, so that it will not be the next South Carolina.