Problems with voting machines in Mercer (NJ)
NJ.com. November 4, 2009. By Meir Rinde
TRENTON — Some votes cast in Tuesday’s election did not appear in initial tallies by the county clerk last night, affecting official vote totals in ten municipalities.
Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami-Covello said she thought the errors were caused by the county’s Sequoia Voting Systems machines, which have been blamed for vote discrepancies in the past and are the subject of a long-running lawsuit.
“Obviously we’re very upset with this Sequoia system, because I’ve had more than one problem,” Sollami-Covello said Wednesday afternoon. “I need to rely on it to do my job, and the public relies on it.”
“I wrote a letter to Sequoia advising them that I’m pretty much tired of having problems with their equipment,” she said.
Michelle Shafer, the Colorado-based company’s vice president of communication and external affairs, said Sequoia would have a staff member come to Mercer County to diagnose the problem Thursday morning.
“We’re relatively sure we know what the issue was, and we have no reason to believe it’s a machine issue,” she said.
Shafer declined to say whether the company thought the problem was caused by human error, as it said of a different problem last year, but said she would provide more information after the staff visit.
The tally problem was discovered Tuesday night and confirmed Wednesday morning after municipal clerks noticed that the vote totals they had recorded were different from Sollami-Covello’s totals, which were reported on the county Web site.
The municipal clerks were looking at vote numbers based on paper-tape backups, while the county clerk calculated totals recorded on electronic cartridges in the voting machines.
“We got out our paper tallies to make sure we put everything into the spreadsheet correctly, and we saw our totals were not the same,” West Windsor municipal clerk Sharon Young said. “All the other municipal clerks checked their tallies and found the discrepancies, and we all brought it to Paula’s attention.”
When the cartridges from affected districts were put into reading machines, the machines had showed zero votes cast and said the readings were complete, Sollami-Covello said. But the paper tapes showed higher numbers of votes.
The affected voting districts are in East Windsor, Ewing, Hamilton, Hopewell Township, Lawrence Township, Princeton Borough and Township, Robbinsville, Trenton and West Windsor, according to a letter Sollami-Covello sent to Sequoia Wednesday.
Hamilton was particularly affected, with cartridges from 15 districts giving some zero results.
While the variance between the electronic and paper tallies was not large enough to affect most races, Sollami-Covello was initially concerned that the corrected numbers could change the result of a Hopewell Township council contest that was decided by 61 votes.
However, after examining the paper tapes Wednesday night, she said Republican Kim Johnson remained the victor. Johnson’s lead over Democratic incumbent David Dafilou widened to 180 votes.
Questions have been raised for years about the reliability of Sequoia voting machines and whether they might allow manipulation of votes. Some 10,000 of the machines are used in New Jersey.
In the Feb. 2008 presidential primary, 30 of Mercer County’s 600 voting machines recorded inaccurate voter turnout totals, according to county officials. The malfunctioning machines correctly recorded each vote cast for the right candidate, but miscalculated the numbers of total Republican and total Democratic ballots.
Five other counties around the state reported the same issue, which Sequoia blamed on errors by poll workers using the machines’ control panel. The company offered a software change to help avoid recurrence of the problem.
Separately, civil liberties and press groups sued in 2004 to force the state to decommission the machines or retrofit them to produce paper trails for voters. The groups argue the machines are unreliable and easily hacked, a conclusion the state and Sequoia dispute.
In 2005, the Legislature required the state to start using voting machines with paper-ballot records within three years, but the deadline has been extended several times.
Contact Meir Rinde at email@example.com or (609) 989-5717.