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Democrats Decry Governor’s Veto of Early-Voting System

GOP lawmakers says proposal’s too expensive, not needed because people can cast absentee ballots.

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Gov. Chris Christie on Thursday vetoed a bill that would have created a system for early voting in New Jersey, which Democrats saw as needed to expand voting opportunities but the governor deemed unnecessary.

Inspired by the state’s chaotic 2012 presidential election held in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the bill, S-2364 and A-3553, would have permitted voters to cast ballots in person at designated polling locations as early as 15 days prior to an election. It was sponsored by and supported by only Democrats. All Republicans in both the Senate and Assembly opposed it, and given the composition of the Legislature, it is impossible to override a veto without GOP support.

In his veto message, Christie said New Jersey voters have been able to cast ballots early in person or by mail since 2009 under the state’s “Vote by Mail” program, formerly known as absentee balloting. The governor also balked at the price tag, which the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services placed at $23 million the first year and $2 million annually in the future.

“This bill risks the integrity and orderly administration of our elections by introducing a new voting method and process,” Christie wrote in his veto message. “Taxpayers should not have to foot a more than $25 million bill to pay for a hasty, counterproductive, and less reliable system.”

But one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Nia Gill, D-Essex, said the veto is a way to try to suppress voting.

“The Governor now joins other Republican governors who have sought to stifle the vote and limit access to the polls,” Gill said. “Once again he is catering to his national base at the expense of New Jersey residents ... As elected officials we should advance the expansion of greater voter access.”

She noted that 32 states allow for early in-person voting. The National Council of State Legislatures, which keeps track of state laws. The NCSL does not count New Jersey’s mail-in ballot process as early voting, but calls it “no-excuse absentee voting.”

Until 2009, a voter in New Jersey needed to have a reason to vote by absentee ballot, usually because of travel out of state or illness or disability. Now, any voter can request a ballot by mail as early as 45 days before and as late as seven days before an election. A person may also get a “Vote by Mail” ballot in person at the county clerk’s office up until 3 p.m. the day before an election. All mailed-in ballots must be received by the county board of elections by the close of the polls on Election Day.

Under the early voting bill Christie vetoed, people would have been able to vote at a designated polling place by paper ballot beginning 15 days before an election. At least three locations in different sections of each county would have been open seven days a week at uniform hours – 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

The Democratic sponsors noted that President Obama called for voting reform measures, citing long lines at some polling places last November.

They also recalled the patchwork of special voting rules Secretary of State Kim Guadagno put in place during the week leading up to the election as the New Jersey tried to deal with polling places that were flooded or without power and people displaced due to the storm. Among the rules: People could vote by fax or email and had until the Friday after the election to return their ballots, vote in person at the county clerk’s office several days before the election, or cast ballots for statewide races on Election Day at any polling place in the state.

“Hurricane Sandy exposed a vital need to update our antiquated laws and extend in-person voting beyond the traditional one-day timeframe,” said Sen. James Whelan, D-Atlantic, and a sponsor of the bill. “In the storm’s aftermath, polling places across the state were relocated and residents were left to navigate a confusing system that included a process for casting ballots by email and fax. We should not wait for another emergency before we update our voting system.” Scott Colabella, the Ocean County clerk, recalled the pandemonium of that election and the long hours put in by his staff, many of whom had been displaced from or lost their own homes.

“We did whatever we could so that anyone who wanted to could vote,” said Colabella, recalling that within hours of Guadagno’s authorization of voting by email he had received more than 1,000 emails requesting ballots.

There has not been, and apparently won’t be, any report on the voting by the state. Guadagno’s office does not have a breakdown how many people took advantage of the special Sandy balloting, according to her spokesman, Ernest Landante. Colabella said he can’t say how many of the nearly 27,000 mail-in ballots cast were due to Sandy and how many had been sent in earlier.

“After the logistical chaos that Hurricane Sandy caused during the 2012 elections, we thought the governor would appreciate the importance of extending in-person early voting opportunities” said Charles N. Hall, Jr., chairman of Working Families United for New Jersey, Inc., a coalition of labor, religious, civil rights and other organizations that opposes any restrictions on the right to vote. “As a state, New Jersey should be looking for means to encourage increased participation in the democratic process.”

Colabella said many clerks agree with Christie that the current mail-in balloting process already give people enough opportunity to vote early. But he said many voters may be unfamiliar with the change and not realize that anyone can cast ballots early.

“Maybe we need to change the name to Early Voting by Mail,” he said.

Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex and Christie’s likely gubernatorial opponent in November, said that adding early voting would have created a more inclusive democratic process.

"This legislation would have made voting more accessible to people trying to balance their lives with their civic duty,” she said. “Dozens of other states have already instituted in-person early vote programs, proving that New Jersey can implement a system in a fiscally responsible way. Gov. Christie's veto is yet another example of Republican politicians taking the cynical view that making voting more difficult will win them more elections."

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