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Clerks cast doubt on new election machines     

NEW BRUNSWICK - Every vote counts, but was every vote counted?

It's the kind of quirky question that can keep Passaic County Clerk Karen Brown, and her 20 colleagues around the state, awake at night.
County clerks have the decisive function of certifying election results, assuring that only the will of the voters delivered those elected to public office. The trouble is electronic voting machines, including Passaic County's AVC Advantage machines manufactured by Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. of Oakland, Calif., tally votes with proprietary software that no county official can access.

That can leave a county clerk feeling uncertain even after an election is certified.

"How do I prove that all of the votes have been counted properly? How do we determine whether the software is working properly?" Brown asked. "We have to rely on the vendor and their software."

Brown voiced her concerns this week in a panel discussion at Rutgers University sponsored by New Jersey's Democratic Future, an organization that began as a group supporting Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign.

Among the other panelists were Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., a staunch advocate of voters' rights, Ingrid Reed of Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics, and William W. Northgrave,counsel for the New Jersey Democratic Committee. Northgrave said he was present at last month's recount in Ocean County, where reportedly votes cast in Barnegat were counted twice and some of those votes were transferred to Lakewood due to a Sequoia software glitch.

Brown said Passaic County had its Election Day complications, too. Some memory packs, the vote-recording cartridges that resemble 8-track tapes on the back of the voting machine, could not be read by the clerk's office central data tabulator, she said. As 2006 election returns were electronically transferred from voting districts to the clerk's office, two voting districts had tallies that did not match the voting totals recorded by the machines, Brown said.

Brown said she based her certification on the paper record generated by the individual voting machines.

Michelle Shafer, a Sequoia spokeswoman, said that the company was not the manufacturer of the technology that transmitted the results to the county clerk's office and therefore could not vouch for its performance.

As for the Ocean County situation, Shafer said it was an isolated incident. Sequoia audited its machines in the county to assure officials' confidence in the results.

"They got the results that they expected to get," she said.

To Stuart Hutchison of Wayne, who was in the audience, there was an easy solution to all of the digital complications.

"We ought to look at doing away with the machines and have paper-only balloting," Hutchinson said.

But Holt said that now was "not a time to switch to paper balloting" due to the millions of dollars counties had already spent on electronic voting systems.

Passaic County officials signed a $4.9 million contract for 650 Sequoia machines in 2005. The federal government kicked in $3.8 million toward the purchase, since the machines were needed to comply with the U.S. Help America Vote Act in 2002.

Shafer said that no voting system was without its limitations.

"It is very easy to manipulate elections with paper-based systems," Shafer said. "Electronic voting systems are far more reliable in terms of security, audit ability, and accessibility than paper-based systems. There has not been a case of proven or attempted fraud perpetrated on an electronic voting system in this country."

Democrats aren't alone in questioning the validity of electronic voting.

On Election Day, the state Republican committee alleged that four Passaic County voters couldn't vote for state Sen. Tom Kean, Jr., R-Westfield, for U.S. Senate. When the voters entered the booth, Sen. Robert Menendez's name was already ed on the ballot.

Mark Sheridan, attorney for the state GOP committee, did not return a phone call Friday seeking an on the case.

Reach Paul Brubaker at 973-569-7155 or brubaker@northjersey.com.

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