NJ working on more election changes – but not the biggest one
TRENTON – There are three levels of election-related changes pending as the Legislature approaches this year’s budget break – those about to be passed, those still inching through the process, and those that remain on the wish list of activists.
Among those on track to reach Gov. Phil Murphy this week: Making permanent last year’s emergency raise for poll workers paying them $300 instead of $200, in a bid to reverse a shortage. It would cost the state an extra $7 million a year.
Poll worker William Ditto said some Monmouth County polls had just two poll workers last year – meaning they couldn’t even break for lunch, as there can’t be only one working at a time.
“We need younger poll workers, and we need to retain seasoned poll workers who are leaving,” Ditto said. “As I have often heard our poll workers say: With that amount of pay, it just isn’t worth it.”
That bill is up for votes in the Senate budget committee Monday and the full Assembly Thursday. It is also likely to be included on the Senate’s board list for Thursday, which wasn’t yet made public by the weekend.
The Legislature is also expected to approve a pair of bills that smooths out deadlines on the election calendar before this year’s June primary.
Hunterdon County Clerk Mary Melfi says without the changes, it will be virtually impossible to meet ballot printing deadlines for increasingly popular vote-by-mail ballots.
“County clerks have seen their volumes increase from 2017 statewide requests of about 88,000 to 2022, we anticipate over 784,000 vote-by-mail ballots,” Melif said.
Some other changes have gotten initial hearings in the Legislature but appear to need to wait until at least May or June for approval.
New Jersey state law already prohibits electioneering within 100 feet of the outside entrance of a polling place or ballot drop box. Now lawmakers are looking to expand that to include the area within 25 feet of anyone who might be waiting in line outside.
“In line at the voting location, we agree that voters should not have to be solicited or harassed when casting their ballot,” said Aaron Greene, associate counsel of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
It would not apply to providing nonpartisan voter assistance, which was important to Assatta Mann, community organizer for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.
“We’re most needed precisely when there are long lines at the polls to ensure that voters stay in line, to offer water or food, nonpartisan voting questions,” Mann said.
Following last fall’s closer-than-expected election, in which the delayed release of vote-by-mail ballots frustrated people in part because they strongly favored Democrats and differed from in-person voting at the polls, another bill that is advancing would allow counties to count vote-by-mail ballots early and require their results to be announced on election night.
Sen. James Beach, D-Camden, said Camden County has the potential of more than 100,000 vote-by-mail ballots but can’t start tallying them until Election Day.
“I know at least in our county it would take so much pressure off the election officials,” Beach said.
Sen. Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic, said it shouldn’t take long to count mail-in ballots and that maybe the solution is more poll workers or more machines to scan the votes on Election Day.
“Obviously election integrity is crucial and you don’t want to give anybody the possibility that something is leaked that should not be leaked,” said Polistina, who voted against the proposed change in the law.
Election reform activists continue pushing for action on big changes like same-day voter registration, though that appears unlikely to be considered before the Legislature mostly pauses its activity starting Thursday except for its budget review.
More than 90 advocacy groups wrote again to Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders last week urging them to enact a bill allowing people to register to vote at their polling place on the day of the election. The deadline is now three weeks before the election.
“The bill, with the amendments, uses existing infrastructure and will have minimal – if any – costs,” they wrote. “We should make it as easy as possible for people to vote, even when it’s a burden to the government. However, when there is no burden there is no excuse not to expand voting rights.”