Election officials warm to N.J. early voting mandate, but worries persist

Staffing and technological problems could hamper effort

By: - July 28, 2021 7:45 am

Voting rights legislation still would face a hurdle in the Senate because it would need the votes of 10 Republicans in the evenly split Senate to advance to debate, under Senate rules.. (Photo by Hill Street Studios/Getty Images.)

Election officials are marching toward early voting in this year’s general election with growing confidence, though a slew of technological concerns and some worries over funding remain.

Gov. Phil Murphy in March signed a bill creating a nine-day period of early in-person voting preceding each general election, with shorter windows for primaries. The legislation, a result of months of negotiations between the administration and legislative leaders, was heralded by Democrats as a move toward ballot access in the face of bills curtailing early voting in states like Georgia and Iowa.

Clerks have mostly overcome worries that the state would not provide enough funding to pay for early voting operations. New Jersey is dedicating $60 million to the effort this year, and budget language allows for additional monies, helping allay election officials’ fears over a funding shortfall.

“I think the money will be there,” said Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi. “This is a state initiative. They would be foolish not to fund it fully. They want it to be successful, as we do. If that means more money to buy equipment or software or electronic poll books, then it will be there, I’m sure.”

Election officials’ own estimates for the cost of early voting have ranged from $77 million to $92 million.

To launch early voting, counties will need to purchase electronic poll books that can track which voters have cast their ballots in real time. In many cases, they’ll also need to buy new voting machines that can interface with the poll books.

In a memo sent earlier this month, state Division of Elections Director Robert Giles told election officials the state would reimburse counties for voting machines at between five and 10 early voting sites, depending on county populations. Giles also said the state government would cover overtime, training, early voting poll worker costs, two electronic poll books per voting district and some spare equipment.

On top of potentially imperiling the launch of early in-person voting in New Jersey, a shortage of funds could open the door for the law enabling the practice to be struck down.

The New Jersey Council on Local Mandates, which weighs the constitutionality of laws that impose new costs on county and municipal governments, in 2019 struck down a law requiring clerks to perpetually send mail-in ballots to certain voters who had previously voted by mail. The law had been challenged by the New Jersey Association of Counties.

Lawmakers subsequently approved nearly identical legislation, this time with funding to cover the counties’ costs.

John Donnadio, the executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties, isn’t expecting similar friction around early voting.

“I don’t think that they want an issue with reimbursing the counties,” he said. “They have a vested interest — we all do — in making sure that it works.”

Remaining logistical hurdles

There are still hurdles. The early voting law did not change existing election timelines, meaning officials may have to deal with multiple issues simultaneously.

Voters can still request mail-in ballots during a portion of the general election early voting period, for example. Failsafes exist within the Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS) to prevent voters from casting multiple ballots, though those issues could go unnoticed until after officials begin canvassing ballots.

And there is lingering concern about the stability of SVRS. The system crashed frequently during elections in 2020 after being overwhelmed by mail-in ballot requests, among other things.

For security reasons, electronic poll books can’t interface with SVRS while polls are open. They will instead be aligned after polls close on a given day, and some fear early voting could cause the system to fail once more.

“Every night, the entire state — at the same time — is downloading this information into the Statewide Voter Registration System, which we’ve had problems with over the years. It slows down,” Monmouth County Clerk Christine Hanlon said. “I’m hoping the state has taken steps to correct those issues, but we won’t know until it happens.”

The state has made upgrades to SVRS since 2020, though they’ve not been tested in a high-turnout election. Murphy is seeking re-election in November, when all 120 legislative seats are on the ballot, too.

There are also staffing questions. Election officials saw a stunning shortage of poll workers during last month’s primaries.

Many of New Jersey’s typically elderly poll workers stayed home over fears of contracting COVID-19. The shortfall led lawmakers to swiftly pass a bill increasing poll worker pay and allowing members of the New Jersey National Guard to hold the job.

That bill only applied to this year’s primaries, though a separate measure extended the poll worker pay raise to the 2021 general election.

“I think it’s going to get there because it has to,” Hanlon said. “We all feel like we don’t have a choice, but we’re just going to do whatever we can do to make it happen.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.