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Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics



published in print 8/06/07        NJBiz online

Voting Machines We Can Count On

by Ingrid Reed

Most people know that the controversy that marred the 2000 presidential election in Florida and elsewhere was mainly about how elections are run: the equipment, the rules and ability of the staff members preparing the ballots and manning the polls. While elected officials created the overall policies, making them work was a management issue that became a political issue.

Since then, every state has had to improve the way it runs elections, especially after passage of the federal Help America Vote Act (RAVA) in 2002. Last month New Jerseyans, had a chance to review and comment on key aspects of voting management when state election officials held open meetings on an independent assessment of proposed voting equipment.

In the interest of full disclosure, I served on the planning committee advising then-Attorney General Peter Harvey, the state's chief election official, about implementing HAVA here and what New Jersey should do to improve its elections. Alas, the state was late in filing, securing federal funds and completing tasks such as creating a statewide list of voters.

New Jersey last year used HAVA money to buy Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines that count and store votes electronically. But voting management activists, led by Democratic U.S. Representative Rush Holt, made a political issue of the reliability of these machines and the need to prevent both simple breakdowns and not-so-simple break-ins.

Meanwhile, state Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) advocated a bill that became law requiring the use of machines that deliver a voter-verifiable paper trail (VVPT) by 2008. Such machines permit voters to check their ballots by looking at a paper version that becomes the vote that is counted in case the machine fails.

Obviously, if there are questions about the DREs, there should be questions about VVPTs as well. As management experts know, the best policy is to address issues before problems arise, and this is what the attorney general's office has done. First it used citizen and expert input to develop criteria for the WPT machines. Then it asked the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) to study theVVPT machines. The detailed reports were available at public hearings last month where people could try out the equipment

NJIT cautioned its technical assessment of the equipment was not enough. It called on the state to address key management issues such as the rules for safeguarding the machines and the training of election officials and poll workers to run diem.

Whether the office of elections stays under the attorney general or moves as proposed to the Secretary of State, activists must continue to make the way elections are run a political issue that demands skilled and accountable management. Good public and private managers know that will be the only way to win the public’s trust – something our elections cannot do without.