Legislative leaders: Let’s get NJ back to in-person elections
New Jersey’s first mostly mail-in election will probably be its last.
Legislative leaders, speaking on an online panel in the New Jersey League of Municipalities virtual convention, said that while vote-by-mail should be an option and that they intend to introduce early voting in-person next year, they wouldn’t support elections that are done almost entirely by mail.
“The all-vote-by-mail only option is a nonstarter in the Senate, I can tell you that,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester.
“I really believe that you’ve got to give the voters some choices on how to vote,” Sweeney said. “Just sending everybody the ballot – hey, it worked this year because we had a pandemic and we didn’t know how to handle it.”
Sweeney said he has been a vote-by-mail voter for 10 years because that’s his choice.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, also said he would not in favor of permanent all-vote-by-mail elections.
“I guess I’m old-school, maybe because I’m an old man. I like the idea of going to the voting booth and I think that needs to remain an important element of how we vote,” Coughlin said.
Coughlin said vote-by-mail is safe and secure and was the right call during the pandemic.
“I think it made sense in this case because we also have heard anecdotally about there were cases of poll workers, for example, contracting COVID-19,” Coughlin said. “Given the unique circumstances of the time, I think it was the right thing to do, and it worked well.”
Even before the pandemic, mail-in voting was being used by increasing amounts of voters. This year, every active registered voter was mailed a ballot and 4.4 million returned them through the mail, in drop boxes or in person. People could vote at their polling places, but only on provisional paper ballots because counties lack the electronic poll books they would normally need to know if a person had already voted by mail.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, said people should be allowed to vote by mail but that it shouldn’t be the default option.
“When you check off on a piece of paper who you’re voting for, no matter what the truth is, whether it’s secure or not, it doesn’t feel as secure as going into a private booth and pulling a lever,” Bramnick said.
“I don’t know if people sit around in a family and there’s an overpowering mother or father looking at ballots or talking to people,” he said. “I think it’s an option that should be on the table. Clearly, though, I don’t believe that everyone should be mailed a ballot. They can ask for a ballot. I don’t think that’s a great burden on a person. But make sure we also have the ability to vote in person.”
Sen. Steve Oroho, R-Sussex, said the state also needs to push for voting machines that create a voter-verified paper audit trail.
“They call it a receipt, but it’s not really a receipt because you don’t take it away with you,” Oroho said. “We’re still waiting to hear some of the results. And obviously when we have in-person voting on something that can be electronically tabulated much more quickly and we can also have some sort of audit trail, I think that’s something we should all be continuing to do.”
Sweeney said a lot of new voting machines have paper receipts but that COVID slowed counties’ transition toward new voting technology.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.