(TNS) — In most election cycles, after the excitement and crisp chill of Election Day passes, inauguration comes quickly after, without a whole lot of attention paid to the bureaucratic processes in between.
Only, 2020 is not like other years.
Instead, New Jersey election officials have spent the past few days hunched over tables, parsing through thousands of ballots and ensuring they match up with their recorded totals. All the while, President Donald Trump continues to cast doubt over the results of the election, placing national focus on recounts, certifications and audits.
In New Jersey, the auditing process has been mandated for more than a decade, and yet, due to a legislative anomaly, has never truly been carried out before. Now, in a year of many other firsts, the audit law is kicking in due to New Jersey’s vote-by-mail election. And the timing is just right, as election audits have never been a more crucial mechanism of democracy.
“We really saw this past election how incredibly critical that’s been,” Penny Venetis, Director of Rutgers University’s International Human Rights Clinic, whose been litigating election security cases in New Jersey for years, told NJ Advance Media. “If we didn’t have these ways to independently count ballots, then there would have been a cloud over votes in Georgia and Wisconsin. We need the ability to do this, especially in such a polarized political environment.”
The process is rather simple: Take a small percentage of paper ballots at random, recheck them and make sure the totals correspond. If the results line up, then chances are high that there’s been no interference and the machines counting the ballots got it right.
“A Dem and a Rep would take the ballots — one would read, one would observe what they were reading, then two people would actually record the results, and every five votes that were cast for a candidate they had to stop and compare that they had the same amount and then they would keep going,” Beth Thompson, Hunterdon County Board of Elections Administrator, told NJ Advance Media.
Election officials must double check ballots for president, senate, congressperson, freeholder and, if there is one in the selected batch, mayoral races, while school board, fire district and public questions are excluded from the requirements. After the tally is complete, administrators have to publicly announce their results.
“It turns out that our audit was perfect,” Thompson said of the results in Hunterdon County this year. “There wasn’t one discrepancy, so we were spot on.”
Audits are now due Dec. 11, after Gov. Phil Murphy extended the deadline by a week, several days before electors meet to formally cast their votes for president.
In Union County, the audit took the entire day on Tuesday, but also produced a 100 percent consistent result.
“It’s a lot of tedious work, we basically tally for eight straight hours, but it’s important work… especially for an election like this, where there’s so much conversation about the validity of a vote-by-mail system, for voters to have confidence in the system,” Nicole L. DiRado, Union County Board of Elections Administrator, told NJ Advance Media.
So, if election officials and voting advocates agree audits are a crucial part of fair and free elections, why is this the first year New Jersey has done it statewide?
The simple answer is New Jersey doesn’t normally vote with paper — every county but Union, Middlesex and Warren use paperless, optical scan machines. Without paper ballots, which experts agree is the safest way to vote, audits can’t happen effectively.
Because the voting machines most counties use are paperless, hypothetically, someone could open up the machine, unscrew the motherboard cover and install a vote-stealing software in just seven minutes, as Princeton Computer Science Professor Andrew Appel demonstrated for New Jersey’s Superior Court in 2008.
“The basic vulnerability is that if an unauthorized person criminally installs fraudulent vote-counting software in a voting machine, then when a voter goes to cast a vote, the voting machine can light up the light just where the voter touched but record a completely different vote,” Appel told NJ Advance Media.
But paper ballots that allow for audits provide a bastion against voting machine interference, Appel and other experts argue.
“Any computerized voting machine can be hacked to make it cheat and lie about what votes are recorded… The best protection against that kind of hacking is to be able to recount the actual paper ballots that the voters marked by having human beings look at them, usually in pairs representing both parties,” Appel said.
Legislators had the foresight to ask for more secure voting machines and an audit back in the 2000s, after another historically tumultuous election. But, in a winding saga of advocacy, litigation, laws passed and then contradicted, the audit became a “dead letter,” as Mark Lindeman, Co-Director of Verified Voting, calls it.
In 2005, Governor Richard Codey signed a law requiring that “each voting machine shall produce an individual permanent paper record for each vote cast,” making audits possible. Three years later, the audit legislation was passed, requiring county election officials to conduct audits after each election.
But the next year, in 2009, an amendment was passed that suspended the voting machine requirement until sufficient funds became available, rendering the audit law obsolete. Robert Giles, Director of New Jersey Divison of Elections, did not respond to a request for a comment.
“The law’s been on the books and for the vast majority of votes cast, [on] those touchscreen, paperless machines, it’s impossible to enforce that law, because there are no paper ballots that could possibly by audited,” Appel said. So you have to completely trust the machines and just hope they haven’t been hacked.”
Fast forward a decade and the pandemic strikes, wreaking havoc on elections. New Jersey now finds itself conducting its election almost entirely on paper for the first time ever, sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters.
All of a sudden, an unenforceable law becomes enforceable.
“Considering all the terrible luck we’ve had in 2020, some of the luck has to be good,” Lindeman told NJ Advance Media. “And the fact that New Jersey can conduct a proper post-election tabulation audit — that’s some good luck,” Lindeman said, calling it a “big milestone for the state.”
Whether New Jersey will follow the same course in subsequent elections depends on potential legislation and funding for new voting machines, a push which most recently failed in the legislature in January. And advocates are pushing for an even more thorough kind of audit, called a risk-limiting audit, which they argue is cheaper and more efficient.
“Right now, everything is kind of put on the backburner, because we don’t know what the future of elections looks like while we’re in a state of emergency,” Thompson said. “We can’t predict the future.”
But, even though she’s not sure if audits will become a routine part of the election calendar, Thompson is counting this year’s audit results as a victory for her hard-at-work Board of Elections team.
“We were 100 percent consistent with the scanning results, which made my day,” Thompson said. “It was more than what I could have asked for. This has been an extremely taxing, unbelievable election, and for us to get the results that we did and have it accurate, it was a dream come true.”
(c)2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.