N.J. to replace thousands of aging voting machines

People sit at a table and in the audience during a hearing at the New Jersey Legislature

Princeton University computer science professor Andrew Appel testifies at the New Jersey Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday. (Phil Gregory/WHYY)

Many of the 11,000 voting machines in New Jersey are so old, officials said, they will soon have to be replaced. Amid concerns about hacking, state lawmakers are examining how to make sure new machines will be more secure.

While there’s no evidence of hacking, the machines are hackable, said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Middlesex.

And Princeton computer science professor Andrew Appel said he could quickly break the security seals on a voting machine, replace the chip that records the results, and reseal it so the tampering would be undetectable.

“I was able to get a bunch of them and figure out what their weaknesses are,” he said during a hearing before lawmakers Thursday. “So if you have three or four seals on there, it’ll take me 10 minutes to get them off.”

Gary Olson, an election data specialist with the New Jersey Association of Election Officials, said a robust system is available that detects any tampering.

“I have tried with a heat gun and with a razor blade to try to get the seal off without indicating in any way that it had been tampered with,” he said. “It is extremely difficult.”

Lawmakers are considering legislation that would require new voting machines have a paper record of each vote cast that would be preserved for use in any audits of election results.

They haven’t determined whether the legislation would require all of the voting machines to be replaced by a certain date, be purchased when counties need replacements, or whether the state will provide the funding.

Internet voting might seem like a way to make it easier for more people to participate in elections, but Appel said it would be a disaster.

“It would be so easy to hack. Not only in the server that you connect to that’s counting up the votes,” he said. “But if your computer is hacked because some virus has gone around and taken over your machine, then it could interfere with the app that’s allowing you to vote … you think you’re voting for these candidates, but it’s transmitting completely different votes to the server.”

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