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Counties in New Jersey are adding more drop boxes for voters to use in future elections, but officials across the state are not sure how those elections will look considering how COVID-19 drastically changed the process in 2020.
The open question now is if the state will hold elections primarily with voting machines, mail-in ballots or a combination of both this year with the governor topping the ballot.
Although many election details are up in the air, the state still has ordered counties to have at least 10 drop boxes and place them in front of municipal buildings and on college campuses. Once voters start to receive mail-in ballots, the drop boxes must be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and always under security camera surveillance.
Many counties had already set up their drop boxes for last year’s elections following state guidance. But many activists raised concerns about placement of those drop boxes, saying that in some cases there were too few of them and that in populated urban areas including Newark they were too far for many voters to get to them easily.
Where the boxes are supposed to go
Counties have until Feb. 1 to make sure they have drop boxes where needed, under the latest state rules. The law requires counties to have at least one drop box in any county building where the county clerk’s office is located; at a municipal building in municipalities with a population of more than 5,000; on the main campus of a community college; on the main campus of a state university/college, and on the main campus of an independent four-year college/university with more than 5,000 students.
For last November’s general election, each county had already set up more than 10 drop boxes. Shortly before Election Day, Union County announced that it added two more drop boxes at Kean University and at Union County College, bringing its total to 24. Union County Board of Elections Administrator Nicole DiRado said more drop box locations would ensure that voters have a convenient and secure way to cast their ballot.
Other counties including Passaic and Middlesex, also placed drop boxes on college campuses, but still others must catch up. The goal now is to add more drop boxes as the legislation requires.
Some local election officials, however, say that where the law mandates drop boxes should be placed does not always make sense.
“Under that legislation, in the city of Camden, if we place them where the legislation says we have to place them we would have three boxes within a block of each other,” said Rich Ambrosino, a member of the Camden County Board of Elections.
The county already has a drop box in front of the Camden City County Administration building. To meet requirements, it would have to add one on the campus of Camden County College, a five-minute walk from the county administration building. It also would have to add one on the Rutgers University-Camden campus, which too is about a five-minute walk from the same drop box in the county administration building.
Find the best locations
Election officials, though big fans of the drop boxes, are concerned about locating them where they are most needed and not just in random locations.
Ambrosino is asking for more discretion in determining where to place the boxes; Camden County officials would like to place more of them in rural areas, so voters do not have to travel too far.
Passaic County officials say they are planning to add more drop boxes as the legislation requires.
“We will deal with it; we’ll get it all done, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy,” said Passaic County Board of Elections Office Administrator, Ken Hirmann.
Hirmann, along with officials in other counties, is concerned that election officials do not always have enough time or staff members to keep up with the workload required by legislation. Major concerns include having to ensure the trustworthiness of whoever picks up the ballots from the drop boxes and making sure that members of staff are not overworked during busy election seasons.
Despite such issues and the looming deadline, county officials say they are excited to help increase voting accessibility for residents and make it easier to drop off mail-in ballots. They note how successful the drop boxes were in 2020 and how voters liked the convenience of them. So, they say they are committed to making sure voters have the drop boxes where they need them.
As more boxes are installed, voters will be notified of the new locations and encouraged to use them if they wish to vote with a mail-in ballot in upcoming elections.