By JOSEPH DEE
Staff Writer, Trenton Times
Before we New Jerseyans develop a smug sense of
superiority and suggest we are immune to the type of
vote-counting fiasco plaguing Florida, know this: It could
We use nine different models of voting machines in our 21
counties, including the dreaded punch card system that
spawns "swinging chad."
Some people have wondered openly why we can't all agree
on the same machine. But we are not the land of 25
brands of toothpaste for nothing. We Americans elevate
personal preferences to the realm of natural rights.
In New Jersey, where 566 municipal governments and even
more school districts are proof that local control trumps
such concerns as efficiency and economy, the counties
get to decide what type of voting machines are used, as
long as they meet general state standards.
Mercer County uses vintage mechanical machines that
aren't a whole lot different from devices patented by
Thomas Edison in the 1880s. Burlington County just
bought fully electronic machines that would seem familiar
to everyone who uses automatic teller machines. Nine
years ago, Warren County began using machines that are
a hybrid of old and new.
It's easy to find people in each county who like their
Massive, gray Shoup machines, which aren't even made
any longer, are the granddaddies of all the voting machines
in the state. They're used in Mercer, Monmouth, Camden
and Cape May counties. Hudson County uses a slightly
The technology is antiquated, but it works, says Rebecca
Mercuri of Lawrence, an expert on voting machines who
teaches computer science at Bryn Mawr College in
"It's actually a really good system," Mercuri said. "You
hear those levers go, `ka-chunk,' you know your vote went
into that machine. It's a psychological thing."
She said some criticize the machines as "being similar to
machines Thomas Edison invented in the 1880s. So what?
Our phones are 1880s technology, too, especially the
earpiece. So I don't like to hear criticism of good
One pitfall Palm Beach County voters would have avoided
had they been using trusty old Shoups instead of
punch-card machines is "overvoting." In a Shoup, you can
change your mind as often as you like, but you can't vote
for more candidates than the particular race permits.
While the majority of Palm Beach County voters who
overvoted cast ballots for both Al Gore and Patrick
Buchanan, a few apparently punch-happy residents voted
for five or more presidential candidates.
They'd have been reined in by a Shoup. "You can't vote
twice," Mercuri said. "You can't pull down two levers."
A voter has to slide a lever back to its original position
before he or she can pull a different lever for a different
candidate, Mercer County Deputy Superintendent of
Elections Bettye Monroe said.
Another advantage to the Shoups is the simplicity of
recounts, Monroe said. When candidates call for a
recheck, machines are unlocked and the counters are read
again. The counters keep running totals of votes just as an
analog odometer clocks mileage in a car.
"We don't like rechecks, but it's nothing like what you're
hearing about down there," Monroe said about the machine
and hand recounts of the punch card ballots in Palm
While New Jersey does have a recount in progress in the
12th District congressional race -- involving Rep. Rush
Holt, D-Hopewell Township, and challenger Dick Zimmer, a
Delaware Township Republican -- it does not involve punch
cards and is mostly focused on so-called provisional
"It must be absolutely horrendous," Nancy Jeffers,
superintendent of elections in Burlington County, said of
the ongoing controversies in Florida.
One advantage to the punch card systems is that they
leave, in the parlance of voting-machine experts, an audit
trail. If a gear slips in a Shoup, you might not know it. But
with punch cards, which in New Jersey are used in Salem
and Sussex counties, you have actual ballots to check.
Warren County's Optech III-P Eagle system combines the
best of both worlds, officials there say. Voters are handed
a paper ballot, a pencil and a privacy sleeve when they
sign in. They take their paraphernalia into a private booth
and check the boxes next to candidates' names. Then
they slip their ballot in the sleeve and stand in a line to
enter their ballot into an electronic scanner.
The device accepts their ballot like an ATM machine
gobbling up a bank deposit envelope, scans the ballot for
marks and adds votes to running totals, said Mary Meyers,
chief clerk administrator of the election board.
"We've had it for about nine years now, and we like it,"
Meyers said. "No system is perfect, but there are really
good checks and balances."
If for some reason the data pack goes dead when election
officials try to get it to spit out totals, they have the paper
ballots to count, she said.
Each of the county's 81 precincts get one scanner, which
cost about $7,000 apiece. "We just got some refurbished
ones for about $4,000," Meyers said.
Among the most modern machines are the AVC
Advantage devices used in Burlington, Bergen, Hunterdon,
Middlesex, Morris, Ocean, Somerset and Union counties.
"Our experience has been very good," Jeffers said. "We
have electronic touch machines. You press buttons near
the candidates' names and a green `X' appears. If you you
want to change your mind, you press it again and the `X'
The machines cost about $5,400 apiece, Jeffers said.
A computer cartridge keeps a running tally of all the votes,
she said. It is removed from the machine and inserted into
another machine at the county clerk's office to give results.
Each machine also prints out a tape of totals in case the
cartridge proves to be defective, and the machine stores
totals internally in case the paper tapes and cartridges are
lost or defective, Jeffers said.
Comparing the electronic machines to the old mechanical
Shoups, Jeffers said, "It's so much more foolproof than
having board workers read numbers off the machines and
then record them on tally sheets. This way you have no
But Mercuri, who also has taught at The College of New
Jersey and Mercer County Community College, is not
convinced. "Fully electronic voting is scary stuff," she said.
"With completely electronic machines, there isn't a full
audit trail. They say they can get returns out faster --
maybe they can and maybe they can't. But you're doing
that at the sacrifice of the important checks and balances."
She said she'd feel better about computerized voting
machines if they printed out a receipt for the voter to check
and place in a locked recount box.
"That would give you some audit trail," Mercuri said. "To
just have your vote whisked away by electrons, I don't think
so. If Mercer County goes to electronic, I'll vote by
absentee ballot because I just don't trust it."
And forget about Internet voting, at least for now, Mercuri
"All over the Internet there are manufacturers promoting
that kind of system," she said. "Votehere.net is a vendor
promoting Internet voting, saying it's private and secure,
but they can't prove it."
A recent poll conducted by DKB Interactive of Morristown;
Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates of Washington, D.C.;
and Public Strategies-Impact of Trenton shows that more
than 80 percent of New York and New Jersey Internet
users "would support voting for president and other political
offices over the Internet if the process could be made
secure from confusion and fraud."
A total of 1,816 Internet users were surveyed, and the poll
has a 2.3 percent margin of error, according to DKBi.
Those are very big "ifs," Mercuri said.
"Remember, Microsoft was hacked," Mercuri said. "I hope
voting officials aren't ballyhooed by the people promoting
© 2000 The Times.