Different votes for different folks in N.J.


                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
                happen here.

                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
                machines best.

                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
                updated model.

                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
                Beach County.

                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
                human error."

                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.