New Jersey continues to use easily hacked voting machines

When New Jersey voters go to the polls this November to choose a replacement for Gov. Chris Christie, the technology they use will be woefully outdated and vulnerable to cyberattack.

Virginia election officials decertified a handful of that state’s fundamentally insecure voting machines ahead of its own gubernatorial election this year. Some of those models will be the primary avenue through which Garden State residents select their next governor.

Looming over these decisions: reports that the Russian government embarked on a large-scale campaign of cyberattacks to infiltrate America’s election system in states across the country in 2016. While there is no evidence those intrusions resulted in altered vote tallies, some cybersecurity experts believe it’s likely hacking attempts will intensify.

New Jersey’s voting machines aren’t simply hackable – they also leave no independently verifiable paper trail. The devices record votes directly onto hard drives, which can be digitally altered. Without physical evidence of each voter’s decision, it might be impossible to verify the vote total and detect fraud.

New Jersey is one of five states that exclusively use paperless machines. Ten others use some mixture of those devices and paper ballots, affecting not just local races, but potentially the presidential vote as well.

Of New Jersey’s 21 counties, 18 use a voting machine called AVC Advantage. It is used widely across only one other state, Louisiana, along with two counties in Pennsylvania. And there’s a good reason for that.

In 2007, Princeton University computer science professor Andrew Appel wanted to see how difficult it would be to hack vote totals on the AVC Advantage without leaving a trace.

He discovered the design of the machines’ circuit boards made hacking votes relatively easy. Appel said he even watched one of his students pick a machine’s lock “in about seven seconds.”

Recent cybersecurity audits of the other two types of voting machines used in New Jersey found similar vulnerabilities.

The reason New Jersey lags behind some other states is largely financial. Paying for election equipment is the responsibility of county governments, and that can be prohibitively costly.

Lawmakers in California, which uses a mixture of paper ballots and paperless machines, passed a bill earlier this year providing $450 million to upgrade the security of the state’s outdated voting system. A report by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office noted that in one instance, county election officials were forced to purchase a replacement part on eBay because the voting machine manufacturer was no longer making new components.

In New Jersey, Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio introduced a bill in February mandating that new voting machines purchased by the state use paper ballots. The bill stopped short of requiring that machines currently in use be replaced due to funding concerns.

“We don’t set dates for replacing the machines,” she said. “We’re not mandating that by Jan. 1, 2018, you must replace your machines, because we don’t have money attached to it.”

Funding could come from the federal government, as it did when Congress gave New Jersey $16.8 million under the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which the state used to buy its current crop of machines.

Even then, there was pushback against paperless devices. Appel remembers warning election officials about the dangers, “but they went ahead and purchased these machines anyway,” he said.

Funding is a problem across the country. A 2015 report by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law found that jurisdictions in 31 states hoped to purchase new voting machines in the next five years, but officials in 22 of those states said they did not know where money for these upgrades would come from.

Appel said state officials in New Jersey, such as Division of Elections Director Robert Giles, haven’t done enough to push state lawmakers to appropriate money for the cause.

“Giles is just not interested in the possibility of recounting the paper trail. He’s the one most responsible for holding New Jersey back,” Appel said. “The Legislature has been willing to work on these issues and pass good bills. It just requires some amount of leadership from the executive branch, which has never been there.”

Giles and other New Jersey election officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The heightened awareness around election tampering inspired the organizers of the 2017 hacker convention DEF CON to launch the Voting Village, a room at the convention filled with electronic voting machines on which hackers were invited to do their worst.

DEF CON hackers found previously undiscovered vulnerabilities within minutes. For example, all of the voting machines on display were supposed to be secure from being breached wirelessly. Yet one cybersecurity expert was able to gain wireless access to a voting machine within 30 minutes by exploiting an unpatched vulnerability in its outdated version of Windows.

The news coming out of DEF CON was a wake-up call to election officials in Virginia, who ordered the state’s information technology agency to commission a study on the security of its voting machines.

The agency’s review found the machines were vulnerable to hacking. “In each of the systems the potential for loss of vote is significant as none of the machines appear to produce paper audit trails during the voting process,” agency officials wrote.

In a memo last month, the Virginia Department of Elections decertified all electronic voting machines that don’t provide a secure and auditable paper ballot record. Among them: the three machines also used in all but one New Jersey county.

While deliberate hacking is a concern, the lack of a paper trail also significantly complicates efforts to detect more innocent vote-counting mistakes. In 2011, a series of human errors in configuring AVC Advantage voting machines in Cumberland County, New Jersey, led to the wrong candidates for the Democratic Executive Committee. Luckily, only a few dozen people had cast ballots.

Some experts argue the paper trail is the single most important technology for providing election security. That’s a big reason why paperless voting machines, which were popular in the immediate wake of the Bush vs. Gore election debacle and subsequent federal funding infusion, have fallen out of fashion.

A Brennan Center report estimated that replacing all of the nation’s insecure voting machines would cost somewhere between $130 million and $400 million. A single F-35B aircraft costs $122.8 million.

This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.

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12 Responses

  1. Tommy p says:

    Why do you think Sweeney and Weinberg keep getting re elected?

  2. charletteirons says:

    This might be the reason for many of the election results that have left me SMH at humanity? Is this why we have a cartoonish, reality star, serial abuser running the USA? Is it possible that the majority of the electorate are actually rational, intelligent, decent folks?

    Let’s get this problem fixed – PRONTO. With all the money we spend on elections we should be able to afford a secure system. Let’s give this job to someone other than local governments. Elon Musk? Paypal? Amazon?

    • Tommy p says:

      I think you like parasitic people, correct?
      How about Mark Zuckerberg Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs?
      What happens when the only people left are the ones NOT paying taxes?

  3. Mustang Sally says:

    And a majority of the voting machines are owned by Soros.

    • Mac says:

      No wonder Gilmore basks in the results of Soros voting machines. They share the same lack of Friends N Family integrity, so it goes without saying they are one of the leading causes as to why no one that can stand on their own two feet sets up shop in Ocean County.

  4. Mandi Pekarchik says:

    The manipulated elections topic has been on my mind a lot lately esp since the Asbury Park scheme that had no consiquences, thus why wouldnt more “officals” carry out the same acts?
    What about Politicans unfairly caterring to specific religious groups, to the extent of brushing off illegal acts that in the long run hurt the rest of the “religions/residents” because they have to make up for it somehow.
    In 2014 Donald Norcross went to Israel with aprox 12 or so NJ “politicans”, including Sweeney. Donalds campaign had just kicked off to run for U.S.Rep.
    The article even mentioned how “NJ is the prime location to live” for them because its close to NY, and housing is cheaper.
    “The Israel Agenda” was/is a top priority for our Politicians. The article even mentioned that helping the agenda had rewards of campaign funds, endorsements, and votes.
    One part particularly stood out in the article, which stated the South Jersey Politicans were the most “helpful” to the agenda basically.
    Seems like the politicans choose their winner reguardless & the “regular folk” are stuck paying into union dues, pensions, misc taxes etc, that fund their political whims & “projects”.

    • #Bonespurs says:

      Have you ever been to Lakewood? Proud supporters of Happy Gilmore known tax cheat
      These fine folks in Lakewood should have been hit with Rico charges and deported not let off as first time offenders
      Write in Gavin Rozzi and put an end to the Friends N Family Plan

  5. imagine that says:

    No shocker here. What would be the reason for using such equipment? I would love to know just how easy it is to manipulate these machines. I’m sure easy enough to keep some seats in NJ occupied.

    • Mac says:

      If Gilmore, or any of the other three less than politically-respectable monkeys on the Election Board, can do it, then it goes without saying that any uneducated fool could do it. Otherwise, Gilmore would have been history a couple of decades ago, and Vicari would be mowing the courthouse lawn.

  6. JIMLETELLIER says:

    These machines always work fine. They never let the political party bosses down.

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