In-person voting before Election Day almost a done deal in NJ

Senate moves bill to Murphy. Elections officials predict high costs
Credit: Douglas W. Jones, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Paper-trail electronic voting machine

New Jersey is poised to become the 25th state to require early, in-person voting by machine this fall. The requisite measure was on schedule for final passage by the state Senate Thursday, with Gov. Phil Murphy expected to sign as early as next week.

Despite numerous complaints by county election officials that there is not enough time and may not be enough money to successfully implement an early voting system in time for the November general election, the Senate quickly approved S-3203 by a 28-8 vote without comment. It was one of three election reform measures considered by the Legislature Thursday.

The early-voting legislation would require each county to open between three and seven polling places, depending on the county’s number of registered voters, for machine voting. Those machines would be available to voters for nine days — including weekends — prior to the general election, ending on the Sunday before Election Day. This year, that would be from Saturday, Oct. 23, through Sunday, Oct. 31. Counties now offer early voting only using paper vote-by-mail ballots according to schedules they specify.

“There are few rights more important than a citizen’s ability to vote,” said Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), a longtime sponsor of early-voting legislation in a statement following Senate passage of the bill. “Passing early voting and implementing electronic poll books will ensure our fundamental right to have our voices heard.”

Guaranteeing a paper trail

Under the bill, each county that does not already have machines with a voter-verifiable paper ballot would have to purchase enough machines to allow for early voting. That means 16 of the 21 counties would be required to purchase machines to meet that standard. State law requires that all new voting machines put in use in the state must have a paper trail for auditing results.

All counties would have to purchase electronic poll books that would allow poll workers to look up voter registrations in real time and prevent people from voting more than once. The electronic poll books need to be secure to prevent hacking and they need to work with the Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS), which election officials say continues to be fraught with problems.

A fiscal analysis by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services (OLS) estimated that the initiative would cost the state a minimum of $28 million to start but could range to $48 million or more. The bill, however, only includes a $2 million appropriation for the purchase of ballot-on-demand printers able to print paper ballots for every voting district in a county that could be marked and tallied using an optical scanner, should that equipment be chosen.

Murphy’s budget includes $40 million for the implementation of early voting — $20 million in the current year and $20 million requested for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Lawmakers are currently reviewing Murphy’s budget proposal.

How big a price tag?

The New Jersey Association of Counties puts the bill’s total cost at $77 million, however, and warned that if the state does not pay for all the costs, it might be considered an unfunded mandate by the New Jersey Council on Local Mandates. In 2019, that body found legal changes requiring county clerks to automatically send mail-in ballots to certain voters to be unfunded mandates, forcing the state to provide more money for the mailings.

County officials also say they would prefer that early voting occur as a pilot in certain locations this year because it will be difficult to buy the necessary equipment, train staff and educate the public in time. Further, a pilot would alert officials to any potential glitches, particularly given that the new E-poll books will have to be compatible with the SVRS. They would rather see the state work all the bugs out of that system, first.

“NJAC is not opposed to conducting in-person early voting, but the state Legislature and Gov. Murphy should strongly consider the recommendations of our election officials to either delay implementation until the state remedies the functionality of the state voter registration database or implements in-person early voting in a willing pilot county as the challenges to execute in-person early voting for the fast-approaching general election run far deeper than just the extraordinary costs to implement,” said John Donnadio, NJAC executive director, in testimony during an Assembly budget hearing on Monday.

But Democratic sponsors of the measure say they don’t want to wait any longer. Murphy is a strong supporter of early voting.

Both the Senate and Assembly also sent the governor legislation, A-5373/S-3596, that would give counties more leeway in the placement of ballot drop boxes, which proved very popular in last year’s mostly mail-in ballot elections.

Thinking outside the drop box

Last year, the state enacted a new law requiring the placement of secure drop boxes in certain locations in an attempt to ensure they would be accessible to specific voters — for instance, a box must be placed at county and state college campuses, as well as at municipal buildings in larger communities. That resulted in certain boxes being located close to others, while other areas have no boxes nearby. The bill would allow county boards of elections to relocate a box that is within 2,000 feet of another box, or roughly a third of a mile. Boards of elections would determine the new spot for a relocated box, provided it is placed within the same municipality as it was originally located. It would also mandate that, when possible, a drop box be located in a municipality with an average per-capita income or a median family income at or below 250% of the federal poverty guideline.

“It is not fair for some New Jersey residents to have to trek miles to drop their ballot off while other residents have multiple boxes to choose from within just blocks of each other,” said Assemblyman William Moen (D-Camden). “Rather than spending taxpayer money on entirely new boxes, this legislation will permit county boards of elections to better allocate the resources they already have. Allowing them to determine better locations for boxes that are unnecessarily close together will help give more voters equal access to these secure receptacles.”

The measure passed the Senate by a vote of 24-12 and the Assembly by a 50-21 vote.

The third election bill considered by lawmakers, A-4655, proved far more contentious. With a 45-25 vote, the Assembly passed a bill to  prevent police from being within 100 feet of a polling location or ballot drop box unless responding to a specific call. Republicans, at times almost outraged in the debate, painted the bill as anti-police, with some saying it will make polling locations less safe.

“We don’t need this divisiveness against law enforcement, and with all the divisiveness that is going on and the horrible instances going on throughout the country, I think we want more police,” said Assemblyman Harold Wirths (R-Sussex). “I think this could suppress the vote if people feel that it’s not safe … I’m advocating for the right to go there, drive by, make sure everything is correct, but more importantly, not to treat them as criminals.”

Police presence at polling places?

Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer), a prime sponsor of the bill, said voter suppression and intimidation are real. She recalled the state’s 1981 gubernatorial election in which a number of off-duty police and sheriff’s officers paid by the Republican National Committee and called the National Ballot Security Task Force were posted at some voting locations in Black and Hispanic Democratic neighborhoods. It is believed their presence kept some people from voting and could have caused Democrat Jim Florio to lose to Republican Thomas H. Kean by less than 2,000 votes.

“What this was and what continues to be voter suppression is using law enforcement, whether they’re on duty or off duty, to suppress Black votes, to oppress people’s votes,” Reynolds-Jackson said. “I think sometimes from what I’ve heard today, there are people speaking from a point of privilege, a point of where you don’t have suppression, where you don’t have law enforcement sitting in your polling location, where you don’t have this voter intimidation … It’s like racial profiling, when you have law enforcement that just look at you when you walk in the door, and then size you up to see if you’re going to steal anything in a store, based on the color of your skin.”

When another Republican asked if she could point to any specific instances of police intimidation of voters over the past 10 years, Reynolds-Jackson said she had received a report from a member of the League of Women Voters in Lawrence Township in her district and “I could give you a list of more than 1,000 if you want individual complaints.” Even one complaint needs to be addressed, she added.

Although the measure had originally been on the Senate’s board list for Thursday, that body did not vote on it. Some Democrats had raised questions prior to the session and the Senate is expected to consider amending the bill and voting on it later this spring.

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