Early voting to cost NJ taxpayers $77 million, study says

Jeff Pillets | April 16, 2021 | NJ Decides 2021
Local election officials consider filing action to overturn law based on ‘unfunded mandate’
Credit: (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
File photo: Oct. 19, 2020, early voting in Athens, Georgia

Editor’s Note: This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

A comprehensive study of the cost of implementing New Jersey’s early voting law shows taxpayers will have to pony up $77 million — this year alone — just to pay for new voting machines and other essential hardware.

That is almost four times the amount set aside in this year’s budget to finance the landmark law, and it does not include millions more needed for the hiring and training of poll workers, facility upgrades and a range of other ongoing expenses.

“We’re very disappointed that the governor’s budget does not provide anywhere near enough money,” said John Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties, which carried out the study and based its findings on data from all 21 counties. “We have no indication where the rest will come from.”

Donnadio said his group is seeking to delay the start of early voting, set to begin statewide in October, and may also file a complaint with the state Council on Local Mandates. The council has constitutional authority to effectively nullify state laws or regulations it deems “unfunded mandates” on local governments or boards of education.

The governor’s office referred questions to the Department of State, which oversees all elections and maintains the statewide voter registration system.

Alicia D’Alessandro, a spokeswoman for the department, did not return messages seeking comment.

Paying for hardware and software

The New Jersey Association of Counties study, which is still preliminary and has not been released, shows that the estimated $43 million cost for electronic “poll books” is only part of the hardware expense counties face as they grapple with the new measure, which Murphy signed into law on March 22. They also need $31 million to replace old voting technology and millions more for ballot-printing apparatus needed to accompany early voting.

Most New Jersey counties use antiquated voting machines a decade old or more. Local officials say those machines are unable to print out ballots on demand, which will be an essential feature of the new regime as voters from different towns with different slates of candidates stream into early voting centers.

Officials in Camden County, home to about 380,000 registered voters, say the law requires them to create seven new early voting centers, buy hundreds of poll books and other equipment and have it all in place before early voting takes place in late October ahead of the November elections.

“We’re going to need money from the state, and a lot of it, or I don’t see this happening,” said Rich Ambrosino, a member of the Camden County Board of Elections.

Frontline election officers like Ambrosino say the money shortage may not even be the biggest cloud hanging over early voting. They say they also worry that a lack of clear guidance from Trenton, as well as continuing technical problems with the state’s central voter registration system, will make a smooth rollout difficult, if not impossible, for early in-person voting.

NJ in ‘horse-and-buggy era for too long’

Last year, election workers in many counties worked through logistical issues after the state imposed New Jersey’s first mostly mail-in election, an emergency order from Murphy in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The balky registration system, meanwhile, spun out bad addresses and other misleading voter data and, at times, refused to accept vote tallies from frustrated frontline workers as they processed a record 4.6 million votes.

Voting rights advocates agree that it’s time for the state to step up. Early voting, they say, offers the state an opportunity to reboot and address its reputation as a laggard in voting technology and administration.

Earlier this month, a coalition of advocates and ballot security experts sent a lengthy letter to Murphy, urging the administration to take a more aggressive role in providing state-of-the-art equipment and advice.

“When it comes to voting, New Jersey’s been in the horse-and-buggy era for too long,” said Renée Steinhagen, of the nonprofit NJ Appleseed, one of several advocates who sent an Apr. 8 letter to Murphy urging the state to embrace reform as early voting takes shape.

“The state has the power to make early voting a success,” Steinhagen said. “This could be a turning point — if we get strong leadership from Trenton. Now is the time to address the issues that have held us back.”

How about a centralized approach?

Among those signing the letter along with Steinhagen was Penny Venetis, director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Rutgers Law School and Andrew Appel, a Princeton University computer science professor who is a national authority on ballot security. Others included leaders from BlueWaveNJ, the Coalition for Peace Action and SOMA Action.

The advocates argue that Trenton should establish commonsense measures like centralized purchasing of electronic poll books and optical scanners, as well as the use of standard contracts that would help local officials navigate complex software and maintenance deals demanded by voting machine companies.

Instead of reimbursing localities for early voting expenses, Steinhagen said, the state should assume the burden of finding and financing the best, safest poll books and get them in the hands of county election boards as soon as possible.

Many states already assume that responsibility.

But that sort of change might be an uphill climb in home-rule New Jersey, where local politicians and party leaders hold power by awarding contracts to friendly vendors. The purchase of voting equipment is no exception, with  two or three well-connected companies dominating the market and collecting millions in long-term service and licensing fees.

Sen. Nia Gill, a longtime champion of early voting, said the state needs to move past the old ways and embrace group buying of essential equipment and other reforms.

“Governor Murphy must take this opportunity to expand access to voting,’” Gill (D-Essex) said in a statement to NJ Spotlight News. “Cooperative purchasing of election equipment is the most sensible way forward as a matter of economic efficiency.”

Zwicker: ‘The money will be there’

Credit: (NJ Spotlight News)
Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex)

The early voting law is a triumph for Murphy and progressives who have fought for years to open polls early,  a convenience already enjoyed by voters in some three dozen states. But the law, which was championed by Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex), did not establish a funding source and provided little information on long-term costs.

Zwicker, in an interview Thursday night, said he had not seen details of the New Jersey Association of Counties study but said the $77 million startup figure seemed “very high.” He said he was confident that the state would find enough money to kick off early voting successfully.

“The money will be there,” Zwicker said.

Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney and other legislative leaders have promised counties that money will be there, but no one has yet specified a cash stream outside of the $20 million set aside in the governor’s budget.

The money crunch and demand for early voting technology comes at a time when officials in many New Jersey counties were already considering replacing their aging voting machines, which in some venues are more than 15 years old.

Reformers and voting technology experts point out that New Jersey’s machines are among the oldest, least secure in the nation: All but four counties use the kind of touch-screen voting machines that were first introduced in the 1990s and rejected by election officials in several states.

Not good enough for New York

Douglas A. Kellner, an attorney who is co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections, said the administration of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani rescinded a multimillion-dollar contract to buy the same models that now make up the majority of New Jersey’s 11,000-plus fleet of voting machines.

The  machines, Kellner said, were subject to technical glitches, open to hacking and failed to provide the essential ingredient of safe elections — an auditable paper trail.

”For some reason, New Jersey saw fit to load up on those same machines and keeps hanging onto them,” he said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News. “Voters obviously deserve better.”

Reformers in New Jersey say running early voting through old and wonky equipment makes no sense. In their letter to Murphy, the advocates zero in on a pair of high-tech items: electronic poll books and the optical ballot scanners, which tally votes made on auditable paper ballots.

The poll book is basically a portable, laptop-like computer that experts say must be installed in each of the scores of early voting centers that are to be opened under the new voting regime. Before casting their ballot, voters sign the poll book, which communicates with other poll books in that district and locks out the possibility of duplicate voting.

Credit: (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
File photo: Oct. 26, 2019, a polling site inspector used an electronic poll book to process a voter during early voting at Clara Barton High School, Brookly, NYC.

Traditionally, county election boards buy such gear via complex contracts with big voting machine firms that demand  fees for service and software licensing.

“The locals are at a distinct disadvantage negotiating with these companies,” Flavio Komuves, an attorney and former state official who studied how counties buy voting gear, said in a recent interview with NJ Spotlight News.

In 2009, while working in the former state Department of Public Advocate, Komuves authored a report which detailed what it said were exorbitant fees and unfair terms exacted by voting machine makers.

The study found that taxpayers could benefit substantially if counties negotiated collectively with machine makers, or at least sought standard contract terms for minimum warranties, software licenses and other items. The report suggested a model contract and recommended that counties band together under a central purchasing office.

More than a decade later, little has improved, Komuves says.

“We could have a uniform system of voting machine standards and contracts, and a state purchaser who gets everything cheaper,” Komuves said. “But this is New Jersey. Everything is local. You end up with a lot of expensive, no-bid contracts.”

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