Praise for census, worries about early voting

Budget review for Department of State had lawmakers wondering if there would be enough money to make early voting happen this year
Credit: (NJGOV)
New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way

Lawmakers heaped praise on New Jersey’s secretary of state for helping drive a huge response among state residents, despite a raging pandemic, to last year’s U.S. census count.

But they also used a wide-ranging budget hearing Monday to voice concerns about whether Gov. Phil Murphy has set aside enough money to ensure a new early voting law can be implemented statewide without major hiccups.

The Assembly Budget Committee hearing with Secretary of State Tahesha Way and other top Department of State officials was the latest as lawmakers in both houses review a $44.8 billion budget plan that Murphy, a first-term Democrat, has put forward for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Lawmakers have the authority to accept Murphy’s budget recommendations unchanged or, as some suggested while talking about the funding for elections on Monday, to make revisions to the original appropriation sought by the governor.

READ: NJ population grows to over 9.2 million, census says

WATCH: What the latest census data means for NJ

“I always leave the doors open for anyone that comes before us, (and) if you don’t have enough, make sure that you let us know, and give us a reason why,” committee chair Eliana Pintor Marin said during the budget hearing.

“Now is the time to make sure that we have the resources; we don’t want to come back in August and figure out that we need more money and that you, Secretary, don’t have what you need in order to make sure that voting early in the state of New Jersey is done the right way,” Pintor Marin said.

A major push that paid off

The Department of State is involved in a number of key functions of state government, including elections, business-development activities, arts and historical services, and the State Library.

Last year, Way and the department also led efforts to drum up responses among New Jersey residents to the 2020 U.S. census count, and by most accounts, those efforts were a big success. The decennial count plays a big role in determining how many seats New Jersey will have in the U.S. House of Representatives and how much funding the state can receive through federal programs.

New Jersey had not been expected to lose a congressional seat this year, having lost one a decade ago. But the size of the state’s population reflected in census results released last week was unexpected.

In all, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 9,288,994 people living in New Jersey as of April 1, 2020. This official count represents an increase of 4.5%, or about 398,000, higher than the bureau’s estimate of the state’s 2020 population.

Moreover, New Jersey’s resident population grew by 497,000 people since the 2010 count. That 5.7% increase was larger than either neighboring New York or Pennsylvania.

Way said her agency relied on several methods to generate responses to the census last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, including coordinating with nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, and using billboards and phone outreach to stress the importance of being counted.

NJ beat national average

Ultimately, about 67% of New Jersey households filled out the census, beating the 2010 rate and the national average of 64%.

“You did an amazing job and I think the state did an amazing job in being able to really get out and be creative about how we collected the data for the census,” Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson told Way during the hearing.

“Your team and everybody did a fantastic job,” Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer) said.

Way credited work done a year before the official counting began for laying the groundwork for the successful count despite restrictions related to the ongoing health crisis.

“We didn’t know that COVID was (on) the horizon,” Way said. “We were able to get out there beforehand.”

This year, a big focus for the state department is preparing for major statewide elections in the fall. In addition to the governor’s office, all 120 seats in the Legislature will be on the November ballot.

Several weeks ago, Murphy signed a law that makes New Jersey the 25th state to provide for early, in-person voting by machine.

Under the law, each county that does not already have machines with a voter-verifiable paper ballot — 16 of the state’s 21 counties — will have to purchase enough machines to allow for early voting. State law also requires that all new voting machines must have a paper trail for auditing results.

Meanwhile, 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.

Questioning cost of early voting

Murphy has earmarked about $40 million for the implementation of early voting — including $20 million in the current fiscal year and another $20 million requested for the 2022 fiscal year. But the New Jersey Association of Counties has put the total bill for early voting at $77 million. The group has also 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.

Way stressed during Monday’s hearing that a working group of state and county election officials has been holding regular meetings and suggested they will be able to reconcile the differences. New information about the costs associated with the early voting law is expected to be available well before the July 1 deadline for adoption of a new budget, other department officials said during the hearing.

“It sounds as though you’re doing what needs to be done,” responded Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Union).

“We don’t pass this budget until the end of June, so we appreciate that you keep working on that to get the number right, so that it helps our counties and, therefore, it helps the voters and the people in the state of New Jersey,” Munoz said.

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

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

— Colleen O’Dea contributed to this story.