Keynote Speech

Penny Venetis, Clinical Professor of Law at Rutgers, Director of the International Human Rights Clinic, and Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise Scholar, spoke about Voting Rights. She was introduced by Nancy Hall. Ms. Venetis began by saying that her mother had taught her to admire the League as a “beacon of integrity and ethics” and that she was honored to speak to us.

She began with some history. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is the third voting-rights milestone, after the 14th and 19th amendments to the Constitution. Congress re-authorized it in 2006. Section 2 deals with obstacles directed at people of color, and Section 5 monitors districts with a history of discrimination. It is Section 5 that is being challenged in the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder. We will know the outcome by the end of June.

Ms. Venetis said that regardless of the outcome, there will still be legislative actions about which the League can stay vigilant. We must fight against Voter ID laws because 11% of citizens don't have identification and against the shortening of early voting times, as in Ohio, because 32% cast their votes before election day. Likewise we must look out for restrictions, such as those in Florida, that make it hard for third party organizations like the League to collect registrations forms. “Beware of voter fraud laws,” said Ms. Venetis. “They are a smoke screen for disenfranchisement since very little fraud occurs.”

Felony disenfranchisement is another area for action. All federal challenges to end it have been unsuccessful, and 5.3 million citizens, of whom 1.4 million are African-American, cannot vote because they have committed a felony. The courts say that legislatures must solve the issue. Ms. Venetis urged us to work to amend the New Jersey constitution to end felony disenfranchisement.

Of greater concern is the vulnerability of voting machines, often left unattended at their polling locations, to hacking. Ms. Venetis was the first lawyer to challenge, using state constitutional law, computerized voting machines that cannot be audited through the use of paper ballots. She was also the first lawyer to obtain a court order to allow scientists to study voting computers to determine whether they were secure enough to use in elections. Ms. Venetis described Princeton University Professor Edward Felton's success in changing votes, videos of which were shown in court. A Michigan scientist was able to slip a chip beneath the paper front of a machine and change every vote by standing outside the polls with a devise similar to a garage door opener. He was so successful that he tried to alert voters to the problem by having the machine play the Michigan fight song with each changed vote. Ms. Venetis said that some experts believe that the vulnerability of the machines used in New Jersey is a hazard to national security. She and the Coalition for Peace Action have been pushing to get paper-verified voting machines.

Ironically, New Jersey has great laws regarding voter-verified paper ballots that have never been implemented. In 2007, the NJ legislature passed a law that a paper ballot counts as a vote, and that law has been upheld in appellate court. Ms. Venetis described a number of ways to implement a paper trail: for example, voting on a Scantron which would be read by the machine, verified by the voter, and then stored as back-up. However, the executive branch hasn't acted on any method. She urged the League to lean on the executive branch and insist that New Jersey implement its “gold standard” laws, especially in light of the amount of money being spent on the two special elections to fill the Senate vacancy left by the death of Senator Lautenberg,

Internet voting poses similar insecurity. Computer scientists are not pushing for it; indeed, in a demonstration, Professor Felton was able to change every vote cast. When New Jersey tried Internet voting during Hurricane Sandy, elections officials were warned not to by their counterparts in New York. According to Ms. Venetis, it was a disaster. Common Cause and Verified Voting are against it.

Ms. Venetis closed with the reminder that the Right to Vote is the right from which all other rights derive. In response to a question from the audience about the legality of holding the two special elections, she said that the governor has broad powers and that it is not an abuse to call a special election. Melissa Scott then presented Ms. Venetis with a thank-you gift.