There was little disagreement at a two-and-a-half-hour hearing Thursday at the Statehouse that New Jersey’s voting machines are generally old and need to be replaced.

But election officials pushed back at the idea that the current systems can be easily hacked, as suggested by a computer scientist who says paper ballots read by a scanner are the way to go.

Princeton University professor Andrew Appel said anyone with a bachelor’s degree in computer science could write the code needed to switch votes and steal elections. Then it’s just a matter of breaking into a voting machine and swapping out a chip.

“If you have three or four seals on there, it will take me, you know, 10 minutes, to get them off,” said Appel, whose PowerPoint presentation included instructions for hacking a voting machine – complete with pictures.

Gary Olson, election data coordinator for Passaic County, said it’s not as easy as Appel makes it sound.

“I have tried with a heat gun and with a razor blade to try to get the seal off without indicating in any way it had been tampered with. It is extremely difficult,” Olson said.

“He had access to a machine – and he’s a Ph. D at Princeton, computer science person who had all the tools and equipment and skills to get that done – for two weeks,” said Shona Mack Pollack, the Passaic County deputy superintendent of elections.

All but three of New Jersey’s counties use the type of voting system Appel was able to hack into and alter in ways he said would shift 20 percent of the vote from one candidate to another.

“It’s clear that the machines that almost everyone in New Jersey uses right now are from the mid-1980s, and we heard very compelling testimony that while we don’t see any evidence of hacking, they are hackable,” said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Mercer.

There are around 11,000 voting machines used around New Jersey. Appel said the state wouldn’t need to buy scanners to replace each of them, which would reduce the upfront cost a bit. Still, it could amount to a roughly $30 million proposition.

“There’s no question elections are expensive. We pay a lot of money for our election system, our election process,” said Assemblywoman Liz Muoio, D-Mercer. “They’re expensive, but integrity in the voting process is worth it. So we want to make sure we get this right.”

Counties want to upgrade their voting technology, but money is the main issue, said Michael Harper, clerk of the Hudson County Board of Elections.

Regarding a possible move to scanners, Harper warned it’s sometimes hard to read the paper ballots marked by voters.

“They vote for every candidate. They circle the circle. They make marks and erase them. And then it comes to a human, again, to say, ‘How did this voter intend for this mark to be made?” he said.

Lawmakers heard from one Cumberland County resident who twice nearly lost elections she rightfully won because her name wasn’t lined up as marked on the ballot. And they heard from a Mercer County woman whose vote in the June primary wasn’t counted – because it was found a month later in the Hamilton post office.

Regarding the latter, Hunterdon County Clerk Mary Melfi said all counties dealt with that last year with mail-in ballots and urged citizens to consider voting early in person the weekend before the election at their county clerk’s office.

“People are very comfortable voting in the office on paper and seeing their ballot being put in the box,” Melfi said.

Don’t look to online voting as a next step, Appel said. Though online voting might sound like an attractive way to boost participation in elections, especially among younger New Jerseyans, he said that would be a terrible idea in terms of protecting the integrity of the vote.

“Internet voting as we could possibly do it now would be a complete disaster,” said Appel, who said servers that count votes would be vulnerable, as would be individual computers or phone apps. “It would be so easy to hack.”

Appel said research into cryptographic probabilistic Internet voting protocols might lead to trustworthy online voting – in 5 or 10 years.

“But there’s certainly nothing available now or in the near future that would permit any kind of Internet voting that we can trust,” Appel said.

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

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