Secretary of State Tahesha Way says her portion of New Jersey’s government is responsible for two underpinnings of democracy: the census and elections.

Both were main topics of conversation Monday at the Department of State budget hearing in the Assembly – particularly the once-a-decade census, which is being conducted next year and has some lawmakers wondering if the state is spending enough to get ready.

The current budget includes $500,000 for the Complete Count Commission. The proposed one adds $2 million more. Way said that’s enough for the planned outreach strategy.

“We understand that with our budget, it’s going to be a major grassroots outreach, on the ground,” Way said.

Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones, D-Camden, was among a handful of lawmakers skeptical that spending is sufficient, given the stakes.

“I’m not sure that a multimedia campaign, the kind that I would envision, is going to be realized with only a $2.5 (million budget) – not that I’m advocating more money, but maybe I am,” Egan Jones said.

The census is supposed to count every person, regardless of whether they’re a citizen, as part of apportioning seats in the House of Representatives. But that – and the state’s campaign to encourage participation – could get more complicated if the Supreme Court allows a citizenship question to be asked of all households for the first time in 70 years.

Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, said adding a citizenship question could cause as many as 6.8 million people not to be counted nationwide, mostly immigrants. He didn’t cite a source for that estimate.

“And when you think about New Jersey and its particular demographics, it would be hard to imagine at least a half a million of that 6.8 aren’t here,” McKeon said.

Way said the Complete Count Commission is planning as if the citizenship question will be on the census form.

“The plan is that initially, the assumption was to move that, proceed as if it would be included, just to be proactive instead of reactive,” Way said.

A report from the Complete Count Commission is due by the end of June.

Last year, New Jersey received a nearly $9.8 million election security grant from the federal government. So far, it has spent only about $171,000 of that.

Robert Giles, director of the Division of Elections, said it’s a five-year grant and will go to good use.

“We’re confident that we are going to spend this money wisely,” Giles said. “But that’s the key, that we want to spend it wisely. The first Help America Vote Act, they threw a lot of money at the states and the states spent a lot of money really fast. And then found out that they didn’t spend it wisely.”

The state is matching the federal grant with $488,000 in state funds. Among the spending is $3 million on cybersecurity, $2.5 million on new voting machines and $1.25 million on the voter registration system.

The voter registration database upgrades include the automatic voter registration now in place at the Motor Vehicle Commission. Way said in its first five months, the number of new registrants is 29 percent higher than in the same period in past years.

Way said the increased turnout by New Jersey voters in the 2018 congressional midterms was the result of state initiatives such as the ‘Ballot Bowl’ collegiate voter registration competition and the ‘Vote for Valor’ program that invited people to dedicate their votes to veterans or active-duty service members.

“I attribute our extremely high levels of voter interest and record turnout to some of my department’s ‘Jersey Votes’ initiatives,” Way said.

The United States Election Project says 53 percent of eligible voters in New Jersey cast ballots last year, which ranked 22nd among the states. That was more than 20 percentage points higher than in 2014, the second-biggest increase in the nation, trailing only Utah.


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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com