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New Jerseyans who voted in person on Election Day had many fewer choices of where to vote than in the past, with one county opening only a quarter of the typical number of locations despite Gov. Phil Murphy’s request that counties provide at least half their normal polling places.
Washington Township in Gloucester County consolidated 13 polling places into one for a 22-square mile township with more than 37,000 registered voters. Instead of eight locations, nearly 20,000 registrants in Mount Olive, a 31-square mile township in Morris County, also all had to vote at the same location.
“I’m not happy that there may not have been the capacity that we wanted,” Murphy said Wednesday when asked about the polling locations during a media briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic, which had prompted the governor to change the way this year’s election was conducted. “We would want to see more capacity.”
Henal Patel, director of the Democracy & Justice program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said the fact that the number of locations in some places was reduced significantly led to long lines and waits of an hour or more for some voters.
Difficulties for some voters
“One of the aspects of our voting system that works well going back years is how accessible our polling locations are, which is why in New Jersey you don’t typically hear about the long lines that other places have,” she said. This year, the consolidation or changes led to difficulties for some. “It does make travel more difficult. It creates voter confusion; people are used to voting in a certain place … It does create lines.”
Murphy signed a law at the end of August to make this a primarily mail-in ballot election, ordering that every active registered voter be sent a ballot and encouraging people to use them to vote rather than showing up in person and voting with a provisional ballot. More than 6 million people got a ballot.
That law also allowed counties to reduce their number of polling locations for several reasons. Fewer people were expected to vote in person; once all their provisional ballots are counted, the numbers will likely show that fewer than 10% of those who voted in person in 2016 went to the polls this year. Officials thought it would be difficult to find enough people to staff all the polling sites, though instead they wound up having to turn away eager potential poll workers. The state also sought to save some money by having a smaller number of locations open to try to make up for the added mailing costs.
Still, the law required at least one polling place be open per municipality and sought to have at least half the usual number of locations per county available. For a time, officials talked about making that latter condition a mandate, but the law as written allowed counties to open fewer sites, stating, “If a county board of elections is unable to reach a minimum of 50 percent of its regularly used polling places, the county boards of elections shall utilize schools or other large facilities to serve as large voting centers, which shall accommodate more voting districts in one polling place.”
Alicia D’Alessandro, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Elections, said a county did not need to have half the normal complement of sites open as long as it was providing for at least half the normal capacity — for instance, using multiple rooms in a high school to allow for more voters in the same location while still practicing social distancing.
Morris County had a quarter of the usual number
Overall, the roughly 1,500 polling places that were open was slightly less than half of those for the last federal election in 2018, the NJ Spotlight News analysis found. Nine counties did not reach 50%. Morris County only opened about a quarter of the usual number of sites, or 41 for 39 municipalities, while Gloucester County had a third of the usual 96 available. (For both the 2018 and 2020 general elections, our analysis counted each polling address, meaning that if two different rooms in a high school were used, that counted as one location.)
As with nearly all other election processes, the decision on where to have people vote is taken at the county level. And county officials sometimes had different goals driving those decisions.
In Camden County for instance, officials said they kept more than three-quarters of polling sites open to make things as convenient as possible for those who wanted to vote in person and to minimize any potential overcrowding.
“We wanted to make it easier for voters to drop their ballots off or vote provisionally,” said Rich Ambrosino, a member of the board of elections in Camden County, where about 24,000 showed up at the polls. “No complaints about lines or things like that. It went very smoothly for us.”
Union County maintained about 70% of its typical number of polling sites to “alleviate voter confusion” and poll worker confusion as well. Nicole DiRado, the county’s superintendent of elections, said she did not put more than one voting district in the same location to eliminate the possibility of a worker giving the wrong provisional ballot to a voter, thus possibly nullifying a vote. She also wanted to make sure poll workers had enough space in which to work safely despite the rising number of cases of the novel coronavirus in the state. Close to 22,000 voted in person.
“We had no reports of any possible cases post-Election Day,” DiRado said. “We had not one complaint about long lines. Goal met.”
Monmouth County: ‘Fair and accessible’
Eileen Kean, a member of the Monmouth County Board of Elections, said the bipartisan body worked with local officials to negotiate polling locations and that worked well. The chosen sites were “fair and accessible.” Close to 12,000 people voted in person.
“We tried to keep it to 50% in every town,” she said. “With the municipalities, everyone worked together … Did we get pushback? Sure, but we worked together for the good of the election.”
Atlantic County’s elections board used a similar approach, talking to municipal clerks, ascertaining which locations had worked well for the July primary or which had been overcrowded and deciding where to open polls basing on that information, said Evelynn Caterson, chair of the elections board. Close to 60% of the normal complement of voting sites were open and more than 9,000 people cast ballots at those.
“Given the response from municipal clerks, I think we did a good job of allowing voter access to the polls,” she said.
The total number of people who went to the polls in New Jersey on Election Day is still unknown, though likely at or exceeding 250,000 based on a count as of Tuesday. They were not evenly spread throughout the state, though, which led to some wide disparities in the in-person voting experience. At least one location in Hunterdon County and another in Ocean County had fewer than 50 people show up all day. But there were places in Newark where people waited more than an hour to vote.
Gov. Murphy: ‘A successful election’
“It is something that election officials, in particular, should have knowingly anticipated, that in the areas where voters are going to vote in person more, it was reasonable to anticipate that their having fewer polling locations would create lines and problems,” Patel said. “That’s basically what happened. Not everywhere … In Newark, voters were waiting an hour, two hours, on line. It’s not as bad as you see in other states, but that shouldn’t be our marker.”
Murphy again said his administration will conduct a complete assessment of the election once it is fully closed — counties need to certify their results on Friday — but he touted allowing early in-person voting in every county as the best solution for many of the issues that have arisen. Still, he considers the recent election process a success.
“We also smashed the record for turnout and that must be said,” Murphy said. “I’m highly confident it was a successful election.”
— Genesis Obando contributed to this story.