Murphy ‘confident’ counties will make early voting work in November

NJ becomes 25th state with in-person voting before Election Day amid concerns over cost
Credit: (Screengrab from Zoom)
March 30, 2021: At the virtual bill-signing on legislation for early voting in New Jersey

New Jersey voters will be able to vote early, in person and on machines for the first time in this fall’s general election under legislation Gov. Phil Murphy signed Tuesday despite continuing concerns from county election officials that the state is rushing this process and may not fully cover the resulting costs.

During a virtual bill signing with sponsors of the measure, proponents and national voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, Murphy and advocates contrasted New Jersey’s expansion of voting access both through the new early voting law and others Murphy has signed — including online registration and allowing parolees and probationers to vote — with actions by Abrams’ home state of Georgia and others to make it more difficult to cast ballots.

“Today, I don’t say this lightly, New Jersey reminds the nation that our democracy is made stronger when we make it easier for the people’s voices to be heard, that our democracy wins when we open the doors of our polling places wide, instead of slamming them shut,” Murphy said. “I cannot overlook that this early voting bill passed our Legislature the same day that the governor of Georgia was signing a law restricting the rights of Georgians to vote, even making it a crime to give a voter waiting in line a bottle of water. It is incredulous that the response to those who claim that last year’s presidential election was rigged, against all evidence to the contrary, are now doing their damnedest to openly and unapologetically rig elections by suppressing voter rights.”

Abrams, a voting rights advocate credited with helping President Joe Biden and two Democratic U.S. Senate candidates win Georgia, called the actions around legislation across the country “an onslaught, an attack on democracy,” saying Iowa has also passed legislation curtailing voters’ ability to cast ballots and four other states are actively considering similar measures.

“Early voting says to Americans who have to work on a schedule that isn’t based on an agrarian economy from the 18th century that their voices matter,” Abrams said.

Nancy Hedinger, president of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, called the new law, “a victory for every voter that wants to have her voice heard but requires flexibility and options to be able to cast her ballot.”

Murphy a longtime supporter of early voting

Murphy made New Jersey the 25th state to require early, in-person voting by machine just five days after the state Senate gave the final nod to the legislation with some bipartisan support. Murphy has long called for such a system and moved quickly, in part to address complaints from county officials that there may not be enough time to implement the change statewide this fall. Currently, counties offer early voting using paper vote-by-mail ballots according to schedules they specify.

Under the bill, each county that does not already have machines with a voter-verifiable paper ballot, or 16 of the 21 counties, would have to purchase enough machines to allow for early voting. State law requires that all new voting machines must have a paper trail for auditing results. All counties would have to purchase electronic poll books, which would allow poll workers to look up voter registrations in real time and to 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, which election officials say continues to be fraught with problems.

READ: Election officials warn NJ isn’t ready for true early voting

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While “recognizing this is a big shift,” Murphy said he “has complete confidence” that counties will be able to conduct early voting for the general election beginning in late October and that the state will help.

“Just because we believe strongly we have enough time, we have enough money, does not mean that it is easy,” he said. “We know that, and we will be there for our clerks and election officials.”

What worries election officials

Murphy’s words did not necessarily quell the concerns of election officials, who say they support early voting, but worry that Murphy has not budgeted enough money to cover all the costs and that problems with the Statewide Voter Registration System — ranging from putting people in the wrong voting districts to erasing corrections made by county officials — will not be fixed in time.

“In my opinion, it’s the wave of the future, if the money is provided and if we can perfect the voter registration system,” said Lynn Caterson, who chairs the Atlantic County Board of Elections.

Under the new law, each county will open between three and seven polling places, depending on the number of registered voters, for machine voting 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.

A fiscal analysis by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services estimated that it 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 — that could be marked and voted using an optical scanner — for every voting district in a county, 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.

“That’s not going to do it,” Caterson said. “That additional tax burden is going to be placed on counties.”

True price tag?

The New Jersey Association of Counties has put the bill’s total cost at $77 million 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.

WATCH: Why it could be a busy 2021 election season in New Jersey

READ: Changes in vote-by-mail ruled null and void, unfunded mandates

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

But Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex), prime sponsor of the law in the Assembly, said the issue is too important to wait, particularly given the efforts by legislators across the country — including some Republicans in New Jersey — to curtail voting rights in the wake of the “fallacy of voter fraud” in the 2020 presidential election.

“The true motivation of the bill Georgia passed, and what other state legislators are considering, is an attempt to disenfranchise voters, most often Black and brown voters, because some elected officials are more concerned about who votes for them than they are for ensuring that every eligible American is allowed to participate in our democracy,” he said. “Make no mistake, we are in a fight today to save our democracy and we are fighting to ensure that every single American has a right to participate. We recognize that not everyone can vote on a single Tuesday in November and voters should not be penalized.”

Secretary of State Tahesha Way, whose office oversees elections, noted that counties pulled off a very different kind of election last year under trying circumstances and a pandemic. Murphy ordered that that election be held primarily by mail-in ballot with some polling places also open, which meant the mailing and counting of millions of ballots, the installation of hundreds of ballot drop boxes across the state and election workers toiling without a day off for weeks.

“Early voting will take significant effort and teamwork, especially from our county election officials,” she said. “I want to thank them in advance for the hours and energy they will dedicate to making in-person, early voting a reality this year. It won’t be easy, but I know that my team … are already hard at work to support our partners.”

It’s unclear, though, whether the Division of Elections has released a list of approved equipment from which counties can choose in purchasing E-poll books, ballot print-on-demand machines and paper-trail machines. A spokesperson did not immediately answer that question. Counties can choose which equipment to use, but only from a list of those approved by the state. They can’t begin to make purchases without knowing what equipment has been approved.