NJ gets the early vote. Election officials still have qualms

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Credit: (Screenshot by Zoom)
March 30, 2021: At the virtual signing of the early voting bill 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 Governor Phil Murphy signed on Tuesday despite continued concerns from county election officials that the The state is rushing this process and cannot fully cover the costs involved.

During a virtual invoice signing with the measure’s sponsors, supporters and national voting rights lawyer Stacey Abrams, Murphy and lawyers contrasted the expansion of voting access in New Jersey both through the new early voting laws and others that Murphy signed – including online registration and allowing parolees and probationers to vote – with actions of the home state of Abrams, Georgia and others to make voting more difficult.

“Today, I don’t say this lightly, New Jersey reminds the nation that our democracy is strengthened when we allow the voices of the people to be heard more easily, that our democracy wins when we open them wide. doors to our polling stations, instead of slamming them, “Murphy said.” I cannot ignore that this early voting bill was passed by our legislature on the same day the governor of Georgia signed a restrictive law. Georgians’ right to vote, even making it a crime to give a voter 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 any evidence to the contrary, are now doing their best to openly and shamelessly rig the elections by removing the rights of voters.

Abrams, a voting rights activist credited with helping President Joe Biden and two Democratic US Senate candidates win Georgia, called actions around the legislation across the country “an attack, an attack on democracy, ”claiming that Iowa also passed a law limiting the ability of voters to cast votes and four other states are actively considering similar measures.

“Advance voting tells Americans who have to work on a schedule that is not based on an 18th century agrarian economy that their voice counts,” Abrams said.

Nancy Hedinger, president of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, called the new law “a victory for every voter who wants to have their voice heard but who needs flexibility and options to be able to vote.”

Murphy, a longtime advocate of early voting

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

Under the bill, every county that doesn’t already have machines with a voter-verifiable paper ballot, or 16 of the 21 counties, would have to purchase enough machines to allow early voting. State law requires that all new voting machines have a paper trail for audit results. All counties should purchase electronic poll books, which would allow election officials to search voter registrations in real time and prevent people from voting more than once. Electronic ballot registers must be secure to prevent hacking and they must work with the state-wide voter registration system, which election officials say continues to pose many problems.

READ: Election officials warn NJ not ready for real early voting

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While “acknowledging that this is a big change,” Murphy said he “had full confidence” that counties would be able to conduct an early vote for the general election from at the end of October and that the state would help them.

“Just because we firmly believe that we have enough time, we have enough money, doesn’t mean it’s easy,” he said. “We know it and we will be there for our clerks and election officials. “

What worries election officials

Murphy’s remarks have not necessarily allayed the concerns of election officials, who say they support early voting, but fear that Murphy has not set aside enough money to cover all costs and that issues with statewide voter registration system – ranging from placing people in the wrong constituencies to erasing corrections made by county officials – will not be corrected in time.

“In my opinion, this is 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 stations, depending on the number of registered voters, for machine voting for nine days – including weekends – before the general election, ending on Sunday before polling day. This year it would be from Saturday October 23 to Sunday October 31.

A tax analysis by the non-partisan Legislative Services Office estimated it would cost the state a minimum of $ 28 million to start up, but could go as high as $ 48 million or more. The bill, however, only includes a $ 2 million credit for the purchase of on-demand voting printers capable of printing paper ballots – which could be marked and voted on using an optical scanner – for each constituency in a county, if this equipment is chosen.

Murphy’s budget includes $ 40 million for implementing early voting – $ 20 million for the current year and $ 20 million requested for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

“It’s not going to do it,” Caterson said. “This additional tax burden is going to be imposed on the counties. “

Real price?

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

LOOK: Why this could be a busy 2021 election season in New Jersey

READ: Amendments to the postal vote declared null and void, unfunded mandates

County officials have also said they would prefer early voting to take place as a pilot program in some locations this year, as it will be difficult to purchase the necessary equipment, train staff and educate the public. in time and a pilot would alert officials to potential issues, especially given that new electronic poll books will need to be compatible with the statewide voter registration system. They would prefer the state to eliminate all bugs in this system first.

But MP Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex), the law’s main sponsor in the Assembly, said the issue is too important to wait, especially given the efforts of lawmakers across the country – including some New Jersey Republicans – to restrict voting rights in the wake of the ‘voter fraud fallacy’ in the 2020 presidential election.

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

Secretary of State Tahesha Way, whose office oversees the elections, noted that counties held a very different type of election last year under difficult circumstances and a pandemic. Murphy ordered this election to be conducted primarily by mail ballot with some polling stations also open, which meant sending and counting millions of ballots, installing hundreds of ballot boxes across the state and election workers working without a day off. during weeks.

“Early voting will take a lot of effort and teamwork, especially on the part of our county election officials,” she said. “I want to thank them in advance for the hours and energy they will devote to making advance voting in person a reality this year. It won’t be easy, but I know my team… is already hard at work supporting our partners.

It is not clear, however, whether the Elections Division has released a list of approved equipment from which counties can choose to purchase e-books, print-on-demand machines, and paper machines. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to this question. Counties can choose which equipment to use, but only from a list of those approved by the state. They can’t start shopping without knowing what equipment has been approved.

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