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Credit: (AP Photo / Seth Wenig)
October 29, 2020: Elcy Londono prepares mail-in ballots for the count in Linden, Union County.

Editor’s Note: This cover is made possible by Vote, a non-partisan reporting project covering the integrity of local elections and access to the vote. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat reissue policy.

New Jersey officials agree that the 2020 predominantly mail-order election – the largest and most complex in state history – was also the most successful, as 4.5 million people safely voted in the midst of a public health crisis.

Lawmakers hoped to build on that success by quickly enacting a plan that would bring in-person advance voting to New Jersey as early as this year’s governors’ primary, slated for June 8. Early voting is already taking place in more than half of the states, but for now the bill is blocked.

In order for early voting to occur, New Jersey must update its voter registration system. This system is a complex network of computer servers and software connecting the 21 counties to Trenton agencies, including the Elections Division, the Motor Vehicle Commission, and the central offices of State Courts, Corrections and Services. social. It is supposed to keep an accurate record of registered voters and their addresses.

Riddled with bugs

But documents reviewed by New Jersey Spotlight News, as well as interviews with election officials statewide, show persistent bugs in the state’s network continue to undermine the voting process and frustrate election workers. First line.

Periodic reports generated by KNOWiNK, the St. Louis-based voting technology startup that receives $ 1.6 million a year to maintain the state system, list dozens of recurring technical issues that have stalled election workers county while they were working on mailing ballots and uploading votes.

The system, for example, spat out the wrong addresses for some voters and rejected efforts to enter the correct information. Voters from the same city, or even the same apartment building, were placed in different congressional districts. Many addresses did not follow the standard postal form and had to be corrected.

Workers struggled to remove inactive voters from the system or add newly registered voters. Sometimes the signatures of some people who registered online or at motor vehicle offices have gone missing.

Fall at work

The system was unable to generate routine information on polling places and election officials. Information on the vote-bearers, the persons authorized to hand over ballots for another voter, has been found to be uneven and sometimes even disappears.

When counties were faced with delays in sending out ballots or starting to count and upload votes into the state system, they sometimes faced hesitant programs that refused to accept data or data. were downloading at an icy pace. Teams of ballot processors in some counties fell behind as they resolved issues.

In Camden County, for example, officials said they were alarmed to discover that some 3,000 votes they thought were uploaded had, in fact, never made it into the state system. Officials, realizing their vote totals were out of whack, rushed to hand-search around 74,000 processed ballots to find the batch that had never been downloaded.

“It was a nightmare,” said Rich Ambrosino, a member of the county electoral council. “But luckily we were able to catch it and fix it.”

Ambrosino said various issues with the state system persisted for most of the year, from primary election season until election day in November. Many of the issues, he said, were minor but frustrating, such as issues in various reporting functions.

Still, he said, bigger problems persisted, such as people who thought they had registered online finding out that their names never made it to the voters lists.

“It seemed like there was still a problem with the system,” Ambrosino said.

Cast votes

In Atlantic County, a judge earlier this month rejected hundreds of votes and ordered a new race for county commissioners after voters received incorrect ballots. The county clerk, who prepared and sent out the ballots, blamed the bad information from state computers.

Local officials say it was a miracle that more votes were not lost.

“Day in and day out, we were asked to work with bad registration data,” said Lynn Caterson, a member of the county electoral council. “Until we fix these bugs, counties won’t have the confidence we need to add another layer of technology for early voting.”

Advance in-person voting would require every county to purchase electronic voting books that would replace the large paper notebooks voters sign when they enter polling stations. Such electronic registers, which look like a personal computer or tablet, would update voter registration data in real time and prevent anyone from voting twice.

But the new polling books would be expensive – around $ 20 million to $ 30 million statewide – and require new training for election officials and the creation of several new “polling centers” in each county. Hard-pressed local officials say such major changes would be a big boost on top of last year’s unprecedented mail-order elections and doubts about the reliability of state registration data.

“It wouldn’t be fair to ask us to buy brand new technology when they haven’t implemented the old system yet,” said Mary Melfi, Hunterdon County Clerk.

Blocking of help desk records

State officials declined to answer questions or release information about the state’s registration system first requested by New Jersey Spotlight News more than six weeks ago, including recordings of the payments made to KNOWiNK and IT help desk records that detail recurring issues with the system.

They did, however, acknowledge the county’s complaints and say they are working with local officials to make the necessary corrections, although they point out that the unprecedented election turned out to be an overall success.

In 2018, KNOWiNK inherited a 10-year contract to maintain the voter registration system when the original supplier went out of business. That contract rose to $ 30 million after recent security upgrades that were successful in protecting the system from the type of malicious hacking widely reported in the 2016 election.

KNOWiNK did not respond to requests for comment.

The nation’s leading e-survey book supplier is said to be a top contender to supply the new equipment in New Jersey, despite several high-profile stumbles in recent years.

Problematic survey books

In 2019, Philadelphia was forced to abandon its intended use of KNOWiNK’s poll books just two months before an election. “The city should not use this electronic polling system in an election unless it is fully confident that it will work reliably,” wrote Stephanie Tipton, Executive Director, in a letter to the Electoral Board of the city.

The company’s poll books were also blamed for long delays in the Georgia state primary that year. A year later, in June 2020, KNOWiNK’s technology was identified as the culprit in an election day collapse that caused long lines at some Los Angeles polling stations. The company said the problems were quickly corrected.

Work to make early voting a reality in New Jersey was stalled last week when legislation that would have opened polling stations two weeks before election day was suspended. The bill’s sponsor, Assembly Member Andrew Zwicker, a physicist at Princeton University’s Plasma Physics Laboratory, said technical flaws in New Jersey’s voter registration system were the main reason for which he withdrew the bill.

“It is clear that the system we have in place is not quite ready to accept the new layer of technology that early voting would require,” Zwicker said in an interview last week. “Local election officials need to be assured that voter lists and all information in the state system is accurate. At this point, they don’t.

Zwicker said he would work with state and county election officials to resolve issues with the registration system, as well as questions about training election officials and purchasing poll books. He hopes he can reintroduce legislation in time to roll out early voting by the general election this fall.

“It’s a great election for us,” he said. “New Jersey voters deserve to have what voters across the country already have.”

Currently, New Jersey voters can submit mail-in ballots 45 days before an election. The proposed law would open polling stations every day for two weeks before polling day, including Sunday.

The system is used in about 30 states that already have advance voting in person or are implementing it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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