Efforts to bring traditional early voting to New Jersey continue to stall in Trenton, as a bill to create the process was pulled from a planned Assembly committee hearing Thursday.
Still, legislative sources say both Houses and Gov. Phil Murphy remain committed to getting this voting reform done within the next several weeks, in time for New Jerseyans to be able to vote early in person in November’s gubernatorial election.
New Jersey law currently allows for early voting using a paper ballot that is essentially a mail-in ballot at county clerks’ offices but not the kind of early voting using a machine, as some two dozen states permit. The legislation (A-4830) currently stalled would establish the parameters for early machine voting in the state.
The Assembly Appropriations Committee was slated to hear the bill Thursday but Committee Chairman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester) announced at the start of the meeting that the bill had been pulled. The measure cleared the Assembly State and Local Government Committee in mid-October but needs a review by the appropriations committee before it can receive a vote by the full House because it will require state funding to implement. No fiscal note has been prepared. A similar bill pending in the Senate has an estimated cost of $20.2 million in the first year and $1.7 million annually. Murphy said shortly after the election that the cost could be as high as $30 million.
Bill sponsor Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex) said the hearing on the bill was delayed as both Houses work on amendments to the bill that will satisfy all sponsors and the governor’s office and to make sure “we have addressed the concerns of stakeholders.” He said he hopes the measure will be heard within the next two weeks.
Issues over voting machines, electronic poll books
Legislative sources said the holdup is over technical issues, including how many machines should be available for early voting in each county and details involving the use of electronic poll books but that Democrats in both Houses and Murphy want to get a law enacted as soon as possible.
Murphy, who has been calling for early machine voting, reiterated his support Monday during a briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic in response to a reporter’s question.
“Early voting, without commenting on the specifics of the bill, I’m all in,” he said.
While Murphy said he hoped the system could be in place in time for the June primary, sources said that’s unlikely, given the need to buy equipment and train workers. However, it should be available for use in November.
Had New Jersey had a traditional early voting system in place last year, it could have avoided some of the complaints and glitches that plagued the general election, which was conducted primarily by mail and included counties sending out some 6 million paper ballots — one to every active, registered voter. Close to 94% of voters used those mail-in ballots, with about 302,000 voting in person, nearly all by paper provisional ballot.
In order to allow early machine voting, counties need electronic poll books so that election workers can see in real time whether a person has already cast a ballot to ensure no one votes more than once. The current system uses paper poll books that are printed and bound for use at polling locations.
As currently written, Zwicker’s bill would require each county board of elections to designate at least three in-person early voting locations but as many as seven in the largest counties. Early voting would be available every day for eight or 10 hours a day beginning 15 days before an election through the Sunday prior to it. It cleared the Assembly committee last October in a party line 4-2 vote with Republicans in opposition.