Machines get vote of no confidence after errors in primary

February 19, 2008

BY DIANE C. WALSH
Star-Ledger Staff

As Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi tried to verify returns in this month's historic presidential primary, she kept coming up with errors for a handful of voting machines.

The numbers from the cartridges that print out vote tallies and the paper-tape backup within the machine didn't match. Rajoppi asked her colleagues in other counties to perform the same test, and similar problems were found in voting machines for Bergen, Gloucester, Middlesex and Ocean counties.

"I'm deeply disturbed by this," Rajoppi said yesterday.

The discrepancies have rekindled concerns over the reliability of the 10,000 Sequoia Voting Systems machines used in New Jersey.

Sequoia technicians are scheduled to examine some of the affected electronic machines in Middlesex County tomorrow. A project manager's memo said the company suspects a computer chip might be corrupted and must be replaced.

The errors involve voter-turnout totals. For example, both the tape and cartridge on one machine in Cranford show 225 votes were cast when Democrat and Republican votes are added.

The problem is, the tape and cartridge don't agree when the numbers are broken down by party, Rajoppi said. The tape counts 168 votes for Democratic candidates, while the cartridge shows 170. On the Republican side, the tape counts 57 votes, but the cartridge shows 55.

"Initially, when I called Sequoia they said it was an anomaly. And I said, 'Excuse me. It's not. It's an error,'" Rajoppi said.

Rajoppi said the discrepancies between the numbers were small and would not have changed the outcome of the Feb. 5 primary, but a few votes could mean the difference in future elections if the problem isn't found and corrected.

"Every year there's at least one election that's decided by one or two votes," Bergen County Clerk Kathleen Donovan said. "I want them to tell me why this happened, and I want them to fix it."

David Wald, a spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office, which oversees all elections, said there is no reason to doubt the validity of the process. He said the clerks were confident "the vote totals matched up."

"It's an unwelcome puzzle. But we're still confident we got the right numbers," Wald said, noting the errors were found on about two dozen machines in the affected counties. He said representatives from his office will be in Middlesex County when Sequoia technicians examine the machines there.

Michelle Shafer, a Sequoia spokeswoman, said her company is working with the clerks to determine the cause of the problem.

But as a result of the errors, several clerks said they added caveats when they certified the election results as official. Donovan said four of Bergen County's 1,106 voting machines had errors.

"It's not widespread, but it's a problem," Donovan said. "We want every single vote to be correct."

Penny Venetis, a Rutgers University law professor who represents activists pressing a Superior Court judge to scrap the electronic machines, said any discrepancy in voting records is troubling.

"I realize the clerks are caught in the middle here," she said. "If you can't certify an election, I feel you shouldn't certify it. Period. Why is it that the citizens of this state can't be protected?"

Since 2004, activists have argued electronic machines must be replaced because they are vulnerable to hackers. They also pushed for printed receipts that would allow voters to confirm their ballot choices. Receipt printers must be retrofitted to voting machines, a process that is supposed to be completed by June.

Diane C. Walsh may be reached at dwalsh@starledger.com or (732) 404-8087