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Problems found on 24 voting machines
By Lauren DeFilippo, Staff Writer  Wednesday, November 15, 2006 12:44 PM EST

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ - Essex County’s new electronic voting machines got their first real test last week as most of them made it out of the warehouse and into polling locations throughout the county.

The machines, which had previously been used in the June primary, handled approximately 166,263 voters on Election Day, or 33.2 percent of the county’s 500,481 registered voters.

The election also marked the first time the county could remotely tally the votes as a result of using the new machines, County Clerk Christopher Durkin said.

However, 24 machines experienced problems, Superintendent of Elections and Commissioner of Registration Carmine Casciano said Nov. 7.

Of the 24 machines to experience problems, 14 will have to be replaced outright because of circuit problems.

Another six machines scattered throughout the county experienced switch problems, but were able to be fixed by technicians, Casciano said.  The machines were located in Fairfield, Roseland, West Orange, East Orange, Newark and Bloomfield.

When the machines were not functioning properly, provisional ballots were used so county residents could exercise their rights, he said.

Casciano said his office fielded several calls from all sorts of people: do-gooders, officials, people trying to be helpful, and people trying not to be helpful.

He said that the counter on the machines raised some eyebrows. The machines, which are manufactured by California-based Sequoia Voting Systems, come with two counters, a public counter and a protector counter, Casciano said.

The public counter, Casciano said, starts at zero and moves forward with every ballot cast. The counter is reset at zero at the start of each new election.

Unlike the public counter, the protector counter does not reset at zero at the start of each new election, Casciano said.

Therefore, some machines already had public counters with readings in the mid-30s from the previous election.

“They are counting accurately,” Casciano said.

However, some residents reported voting problems in towns other than those listed by Casciano, such as Montclair, South Orange and Irvington.

Poll workers at the Redwood Avenue School location in West Orange said they had seen a steady stream of residents.

One of the three machines set up in the gym at the school did go down for about an hour, but a technician came to the site and showed poll workers how to fix the problem themselves, in case it were to happen again, Kevin McDonald said.

Veteran poll worker Richard Schwarz, who has served the Board of Elections for 15 years, said the poll workers had a thorough training in preparation for the elections.

Setting up for the election began at 5:15 a.m. the polls could open at 6 a.m.

Unlike the older, lever-operated predecessor, the new machines are lighter to set up, and come equipped with a battery back up in the event of a power outage.

“There’s no way we’ll lose voters or votes,” Schwarz said, recalling an incident at Hazel Avenue School some years ago when bad weather knocked out electricity and made it impossible for people to vote.

As for the voters, reviews of the new machines were mixed.

“(It was) very easy,” Sandy Schuman said after casting her vote.  “Then again, I’m used to computers.

I could see how older people not used to (them) would probably have a hard time.”

Another voter, who did not wish to give her name, said she was less than impressed with the new machines.

“I don’t like it,” she said, “I’m not used to it.”

“People like what’s familiar,” McDonald said.

To make using the new machines easier, there were large posters with instructions for using the new machines printed in both English and Spanish.

Poll workers also handed out a sheet of paper with instructions for residents to carry into the booth with them.

The purchase of the new voting machines was a year-long controversy.  Residents mobilized and cautioned the freeholder board and the county’s administration about purchasing the Sequoia machines.

The county was required to purchase the new electronic machines under the federal Help America Vote Act, passed in 2002.

The back and forth debate about the machines held off a vote to purchase them until last November.

Approximately 70 percent of the purchase was reimbursed by the state.  However, the reimbursement hinged on purchasing machines that were certified by the Office of the Attorney General.

The Sequoia Advantage, which the county ultimately purchased, is the only full-faced electronic voting machine certified for use by the Attorney General’s Office.

However, the machines did not arrive until just weeks before the June Primary, despite a February delivery date within the county’s contract with the firm.

The county is currently in negotiations with Sequoia about payment for the machines.

The freeholder board will discuss the situation in an executive session during one of its December meetings.

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