Legislation introduced by Statehouse Democrats setting a requirement for how much in federal election security funds must be used for new voting machines would put the minimum at nearly twice as much as Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration is planning.

Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, said she has heard from constituents who want to ensure elections are protected from errors or manipulation. She is among the sponsors of a bill requiring New Jersey to use at least half of any federal election funds it gets for safer voting systems.

Turner was surprised that the state plans to spend $2.5 million of the nearly $9.8 million in Help America Vote Act funds it will soon receive on voting machines, with nearly three-quarters of the funds directed to other priorities.

“Well, I think it’s more important for us to ensure the public, the voters, that there will be a paper trail to show how their vote was cast,” Turner said. “I don’t know if that (26 percent) would be enough money to provide for that assurance.”

The bill's language says it would take effect immediately, though it hasn't yet gotten a hearing and might never make it into law. Even if it does, it might not take effect until after the next round of funding is received. If enacted in its current form, it would be in effect for 15 years.

Among the 13 states with at least some paperless voting machines, only two are committing a smaller portion of their new HAVA funds toward new equipment than New Jersey.

Half of the states with paperless voting machines are spending at least 80 percent of their new federal election funds on voting equipment, including all the going to Arkansas, Delaware, Louisiana and Pennsylvania.

“It would be our desire that 100 percent of any federal funds be used for new voting machines,” said Stephanie Harris, chairwoman of a voting integrity task force for the Coalition for Peace Action, which advocates for voter-verified paper ballots.

Harris estimates that optical-scanner voting systems, in which a person uses a pen or pencil to mark a ballot that’s then run through a machine for counting, would cost $36 million statewide if it purchased or less if it is leased.

The Brennan Center for Law and Justice at New York University estimates it would cost between $40.4 million and $63.5 million for New Jersey to replace all its voting machines.

Harris said Gov. Phil Murphy promised funding for optical-scan machines as a candidate but didn’t deliver in his first budget. She said the Legislature hasn’t in years, either, even after enacting a law in 2005 requiring voter-verified paper ballot machines by 2008.

“The voters of New Jersey are now at significant risk, and our government has failed us,” Harris said.

“The outrage is that the proposal of the use of federal money is to be used on a pilot project which, in their words, is a very small pilot project,” Harris said. “So if it’s only a few areas in a few counties in New Jersey, that means that the bulk of the voters in New Jersey will not benefit at all from those federal dollars.”

The Rev. Robert Moore, executive director of the Coalition for Peace Action, said the proposed legislation – S2884/A4409, also sponsored by Sen. James Beach, D-Camden, and Assemblyman Roy Freiman, D-Somerset – is “a good start” toward voter-marked paper ballots.

“Pretty much anything that is electronically based can malfunction and be hacked,” Moore said. “It’s actually shameful that New Jersey is one of just five states that doesn’t have that essential security device in place.”

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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