Early voting cost dispute could be resolved in two weeks
TRENTON – New Jersey’s gubernatorial and legislative elections are in six months – or less, if you count early voting.
Lawmakers keyed in early voting at a Department of State budget hearing Monday. It’s never been conducted in New Jersey the way it will this year – on machines at locations in every county, for the two weekends and full week in between leading up to the Nov. 2 election.
Assembly members weren’t opposed to the law but were apprehensive about whether the state will be ready to manage and fund it. Under Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget plan, the state will allocate $40 million to early voting over two years, while county election officials have said as much as $77 million is needed.
Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, D-Essex, the Assembly budget committee chairwoman, said the administration is trying to be conservative about cost projections.
“But it seems that we’re implementing a lot of new things,” Pintor Marin said. “The early voting is going to be very new for us. And we know that obviously sometimes when something is new, you need a little bit additional money up front in order to make sure that things work out well.”
Pintor Marin said the bipartisan consensus is that early voting needs more funding. She said the state tends to have technology problems because it doesn’t allocate what’s needed.
“And I think that a lot of us are just a little bit concerned, right? We have elections around the corner,” Pintor Marin said.
Secretary of State Tahesha Way said the state has brought together local officials and national experts in a working group on early voting because it’s committed to getting it right.
“I look at last year,” Way said. “There was confidence in the primarily vote-by-mail, and that was a herculean task when it’s taken other states to do that in five years. So, I would say there is confidence.”
Division of Elections director Robert Giles said the state is working with the electronic poll book companies and its voter registration database vendor.
“Our plan is to have this up and running and tested over the summer, so before we get to the end of the summer everybody’s confident that the system will work properly,” Giles said.
Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, R-Union, and other lawmakers worried about the state shifting costs for early voting onto counties, which could then challenge the law as an unfunded local mandate.
“June 30 is the budget deadline, so you have some time. But what we’re really concerned about is the counties, and if it costs more than what you’re budgeted for, where will that money come from,” Munoz said.
Giles said the state doesn’t agree with all the parts of the county election officials’ budget estimate but that the state can raise some of its cost projections. He acknowledged that “the numbers are all over the place right now” but said the working group is expected to resolve the issue soon.
“I think in about two weeks we’ll have a number that we can all agree on,” Giles said.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.