Felten: Some New Jersey voting machines can't add

A printed tape offered as evidence of the integrity of a Sequoia Voting Systems machine failed a very obvious test last week, as a Princeton professor noted a simple column of numbers actually added up to 105, not 106.

The Princeton University professor who has received national acclaim for his efforts to assess the true integrity of electronic voting machines, discovered one very simple error amid the evidence one manufacturer, Sequoia Voting Systems, had actually offered in its own defense. In recent weeks, Sequoia has found itself in hot water again for as many as sixty separate discrepancies reported in a single election in New Jersey last February 3.

All those discrepancies were attributed to a single model: Sequoia's AVC Advantage, using system firmware version 9.0.

Sequoia had said that all these problems could be due to operator error -- specifically, a procedure for separately "booting" the parties participating in an election, using one of twelve numbered switches, could result, the company claimed in a bulletin published March 4 (PDF available here), in one party having its ballots counted incorrectly.

"Let's assume the Democrat party is assigned option switch 6 while the Republican Party is assigned option switch 12," stated Sequoia's hypothetical. "If a Democrat voter arrives, the poll worker presses the '6' button followed by the green 'Activate' button. The Democrat contests are activated and the voter votes the ballot. For a Republican voter, the poll worker presses the '12' button followed by the green 'Activate' button, which then activates the Republican contests and the voter votes the ballot. This is the correct and proper method of machine activation when using option switches.

"However, we have found that when a poll worker selects the lower of the two assigned selection codes, followed by pressing an unused selection code and then pressing the green 'Activate' button," the manufacturer's bulletin continued, "the higher numbered party on the operator panel has its contests activated instead while the selection code button for the original party stays active on the operator panel."

For Prof. Felten to have found an error in Sequoia's evidence, he may have used a pocket calculator...or he may simply have added the numbers in front of him in his own head. In any event, one of nine example tapes Sequoia had provided in its defense, showing the operator sequence it outlined could always lead to the error in question, revealed a discrepancy that was not caused by operator error.

"This is not only wrong -- 106 votes cast by 105 voters -- but it's also inconsistent with Sequoia's explanation," Prof. Felten wrote last Friday. "Sequoia says that all of the voters show up in the turnout section, but a few might show up in the wrong party's turnout...That's not what we see here, so Sequoia's explanation must be incorrect."

In October 2006, it was Felten's team that demonstrated that the machines recommended by the State of Florida to replace the "hanging chad" system that kept the nation in suspense in 2000, was susceptible to incursion by forging a system upgrade. Those were Diebold AccuVote-TS systems, and since that time, that model has come under intense scrutiny nationwide, putting its manufacturer in the position of having to change its own name in an effort to restore its tarnished public image.

While the State of New Jersey undergoes a restructuring in which its division of elections is being transferred to the Secretary of State's office -- a move which only became official last week -- public support has been growing for the state to appoint Felten as an independent investigator into the integrity of Sequoia's machines, similar to the work he performed on the Diebold systems in 2006. But even without an official state response, Sequoia reportedly responded in writing, to Felten personally, indicating it could take legal action if he is retained to help New Jersey.

An e-mail sent to Profs. Felten and Andrew W. Appel from Sequoia vice president Edwin Smith, states that such an investigation may be actionable as a violation of intellectual property.

"As you have likely read in the news media, certain New Jersey election officials have stated that they plan to send to you one or more Sequoia Advantage voting machines for analysis," reads the letter, whose authenticity Felten vouched for. "I want to make you aware that if the County does so, it violates their established Sequoia licensing Agreement for use of the voting system. Sequoia has also retained counsel to stop any infringement of our intellectual properties, including any non-compliant analysis. We will also take appropriate steps to protect against any publication of Sequoia software, its behavior, reports regarding same or any other infringement of our intellectual property."

There is no word yet from the New Jersey Secretary of State, who has just assumed the job of handling elections there, as to what official investigation it may undertake.

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