By Penny M. Venetis
As worries intensify over security risks following revelations that the Russian government is actively meddling in the American democratic process, the voting industry is facing scrutiny that it was able to avoid in the past.
Only three companies control the voting machine industry in the U.S., owning a 92 percent market share estimated at about $300 million. States are starting to demand transparency of investment in the U.S. voting systems industry following reports of links between corporate investors and foreign governments. New Jersey should lead the charge.
The release of Mueller’s report into Russian efforts to sway the 2016 presidential election have highlighted concerns that foreign influence is a danger at all levels of the elections process. As a result, North Carolina is now requiring that all voting machine companies that want to do business in the state disclose the identity of any entity that holds at least a 5 percent financial stake in the company.
Maryland is also moving to require that any company that assists the state with any aspect of its elections disclose its investment ties. That state’s deputy elections administrator took this step after learning from the FBI that a previous 2015 buyout of The Sidus Group, a contractor managing the state’s voting data, posed a potential security risk. The private equity firm that financed the buyout was owned by the former first deputy prime minister of Russia, who has close ties to Vladimir Putin.
This is not the first time that voting machine companies’ shadowy private equity backing has come under scrutiny. The federal government previously investigated the 2005 takeover of Sequoia Voting Systems by Smartmatic, a company linked to the Hugo Chavez regime in Venezuela that was hostile to the U.S.’s interests. Before the purchase, Smartmatic received a huge investment from a Venezuelan government financing agency, which received a 28 percent stake in the company and a permanent seat on its board. Sequoia manufactured the roughly 11,000 computerized voting machines used in New Jersey, which the state purchased mostly between 2004 and 2007.
Similarly, in 2012, voting machine provider Hart InterCivic was mired in controversy after reporting revealed that private equity firm H.I.G. had invested in Hart despite potential ties to the Republican Party’s Presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. Solamere, a private equity partner of H.I.G., was started by Tagg Romney (Mitt’s son) and Romney campaign finance director Spencer Zwick.
Private corporations have played a particularly strong role in our elections since New Jersey purchased its nearly 11,000 computerized voting machines from Sequoia. The third parties that essentially run New Jersey elections do so without meaningful oversight from the state, without transparency, and without disclosing their investors.
Sequoia (now Dominion) designs and loads ballot software for every political race into every voting machine in the state, with no oversight. The state does not independently test software used in our computerized voting machines, and Dominion and other companies whose software runs in the state’s Sequoia voting machines maintain total secrecy around their source code, claiming that it is proprietary.
New Jersey needs to follow North Carolina and Maryland’s lead and demand that all voting system vendors that operate in the state similarly disclose their private equity backers and other financial ties. Our state is particularly vulnerable to election hacking. New Jersey is one of only five states whose voter machines do not produce paper ballots, which allow voters and the state to audit elections in a way that is independent of the voting computers. This is the case, even though our state laws have had a paper ballot requirement since 2005.
The state’s voting systems are almost two decades old, are malfunctioning, and need to be replaced. Counties are in the process of testing various voting machines to replace the ailing Sequoia Advantages. Before spending a dime on new voting machines, the state should require that any vendors who wish to do business in New Jersey disclose their owners and all financial backers, and turn over a copy of the source code of all electronic voting machine components for review. New Jersey voters should also demand that their counties purchase the safest and most transparent voting systems-precinct based optical scanners that count paper ballots that are hand marked by voters.
Fair and open elections are vital for maintaining a healthy, functioning democracy. A 2018 Ipsos poll found that roughly half of Americans do not view domestic elections as fair and transparent. New Jersey can begin restoring confidence in American democracy by making sure that its voting systems are transparent, secure and auditable.
Penny Venetis is a clinical professor of law and director of the Human Rights Clinic at Rutgers Law School.
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