EDISON, NJ—On March 10, the citizens of Edison and Woodbridge will be casting ballots on new electronic voting machines for the first time in over two decades.
While some of the Middlesex County’s new “ExpressVote XL” machines have already arrived at the Board of Elections warehouse in Edison, the bulk of the $7.6 million equipment purchase is set to arrive in the coming weeks.
The former voting machines have been stripped down and will soon be on their way to a local landfill, according to elections officials.
The county’s Board of Chosen Freeholders approved the purchase in February 2019, but it’s taken a long time for the transition to finally move ahead, under the leadership of new Elections Administrator Thomas Lynch.
The 720 new machines include “touchscreens” and produce a paper record for every vote. That’s more than enough for each of the county’s voting districts to have its own machine in use on the same day.
The county also purchased 720 “electronic poll books” and two “high speed image scanners” from the same vendor that is providing the machines: Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software (ES&S).
According to ProPublica, some 70 million Americans now use ES&S machines to cast their votes, a whopping 50% of the market share.
But, the company and many of its competitors have checkered pasts.
For instance, malfunctions caused massive delays in one Indiana county, forcing thousands of voters to wait for hours in order to participate in the November 2018 election. The county cut ties with ES&S after the debacle.
When questioned about other potential vulnerabilities of ES&S equipment, County Administrator John Pulomena said he was confident the new voting machines could not be accessed remotely through any public network.
“We’re relying also on the fact that the state has certified the equipment, and that certification gives us a strong sense of confidence that they have addressed any concerns they may have had in the past,” Pulomena told this reporter, shortly before their purchase was approved at the February 7, 2019 Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting.
Pulomena had said the county was hoping to roll out “a sample” of the new machines in time for the June 2019 primary elections, with the full fleet to be deployed in time for the November 2019 general election, stating that any delays in approving the funding could “jeopardize” that timeline. But the county failed to meet the timeline regardless.
ProPublica’s Jessica Huseman reported in 2019 that the company’s major competitors use similar tactics and appear to have similar priorities:
ES&S and the other two major companies — Dominion, which has about 30% of the market, and Hart InterCivic, which has about 15% — have similar business models. Each has a large sales force that pushes its products, services and maintenance help to counties across the country. Comparatively little of their workforces are devoted to engineering or product development.ProPublica (Oct. 28, 2019): “The Market for Voting Machines Is Broken. This Company Has Thrived in It.”
While the ES&S products are expected to be an improvement over the outdated, highly-vulnerable Sequoia brand “AVC Advantage” machines that were in use here for over 20 years, there are concerns about the new products as well.
Sequoia, the makers of the county’s old machines, was purchased by Dominion in 2010. Dominion continued to provide county election officials with support for the machines through the end of 2019.
One key improvement between the old and new equipment is that the new machines will produce a paper record of each vote that the voter can review, and will be considered their official ballot.
The old equipment simply stored the votes on a data cartridge, which would sometimes fail.
However, voters actually have to review the paper and raise an issue if they notice an omission or inaccuracy, in order for this ES&S system, categorized by some as a “ballot marking device” or “BMD,” to work effectively.
A 2019 study conducted at the University of Michigan found that, unless they were reminded to check the printouts, “only 40% of participants reviewed their printed ballots at all, and only 6.6% told a poll worker something was wrong.”
For better or worse, the ES&S machines will be in use throughout the county beginning this year, marking the culmination of the project led by Lynch, who previously worked as Chief of Staff to local State Senator Patrick Deignan.
March 10 will mark their first official use, as the two largest towns in Middlesex County hold special referendums on school board borrowing.
Stephen Nyers, who supervises the county’s voting machine warehouse, said he was glad to have a straightforward ballot with only two options, “yes” or “no,” on a single question, for the first use of the new equipment.
Things will get a little more complicated when they are used on April 21 in New Brunswick’s school election, where candidates may compete for three board openings, and voters will also vote up or down on a proposed budget.
The first time the voting machines will be used in all 25 Middlesex County municipalities at once will be the June 2 primary election.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.