Early voting on machines could come to New Jersey in 2021
New Jersey’s embrace of early voting seems likely to continue beyond this year’s election but could come with a change starting in 2021 – the use of electronic voting machines.
An Assembly committee has already taken the first step toward approving two weeks of early voting on machines in future general elections, though whipsawed county clerks are asking for them to slow down and fix the recent changes that have been made before adding even more.
“We all, as we are more than aware, in the middle of an election season. But it’s not too early to start to think about next year’s election and beyond,” said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Mercer.
“We all believe that voting should be easy, convenient and accessible. And our democracy depends on participation of the people,” he said. “However, in a non-COVID world, our current system makes it difficult for people to exercise their constitutional right to vote.”
“Heading to the polls on Election Day often requires voters to take time off from work on a weekday, perhaps find care for a child or other things that demand their time,” Zwicker said. “It shouldn’t be that hard to cast their ballot.”
The bill, A4830, would establish in-person early voting polling places starting the 15th day before a general election, ending on the Sunday before the election. They would have to be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. except on Sundays, when they could close at 6 p.m.
Every county would have to have at least three early voting locations. Counties with between 150,000 and 300,000 residents would need five locations, and counties with over 300,000 residents would need seven. If current population estimates are accurate, that would mean 119 polling locations statewide.
Thirty-eight states and Washington, D.C., provide for some degree of early voting, said Henal Patel, a program director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
“It is long past time for us to join them,” Patel said.
Patel said early voting has many benefits, including expanded access to voting, shorter lines on Election Day and early diagnosis and correction of any errors with registration rolls, ballots or machinery.
The U.S. Elections Project says 34 million of the 93.3 million early votes recorded by states as of early Sunday were cast in person.
“This is necessary legislation,” Patel said. “We are seeing all around the country right now that voters want to vote early, in person and by mail. Voter desire is clear here. It is now up the state to listen and pass this bill.”
Then-Gov. Chris Christie vetoed early voting bills in 2013 and 2015.
Early voting would require counties to have electronic poll books, rather than paper ones, so voting records are updated at least once daily as voters visit polling places that aren’t limited to just their municipality.
County clerks said they worry it’s too much, too soon.
“I think we learned with this primary and with this general election that the Statewide Voter Registration System needs quite a bit of work before we start anything new with it,” said Hunterdon County Clerk Mary Melfi. “We’ve all seen the stories about the duplicate ballots, the deceased voters. There’s just a lot of work that needs to be done before we start anything new.”
“I believe I speak for the clerks when I say we support early voting. We know it needs to be done,” Melfi said. “But I would just hate to see us go into opening up something else new until we clean up what we have here.”
Somerset County Clerk Steve Peter said the state lacks the technical infrastructure to begin early voting on election equipment.
“I support early voting but we need to build out the Statewide Voter Registration System first,” Peter said. “We need to make sure that we’re on a level that we can actually produce the early voting.”
Most people aren’t voting on machines in this year’s election, other than those with disabilities. If people haven’t voted early or mail, drop box or hand-delivery and doesn’t bring their mail-in ballot to their polling place Tuesday, they can vote on a provisional paper ballot.
Provisional ballots are counted after counties determine the person hasn’t also voted by mail. Due to the possibility that mailed-in votes could be processed slowly by the U.S. Postal Service, such votes will count this year if they’re postmarked by Nov. 3 and received by 8 p.m. on Nov. 10.
County boards of canvassers have to meet by Nov. 20 to certify election results. Those results must be transmitted by the county clerks to the secretary of state by Nov. 23. The Board of State Canvassers will certify the results by Dec. 8, in advance of the Electoral College meeting on Dec. 14.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.