(Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)
Early voting is coming to New Jersey, but for now, most counties are just dipping their toes in the water.
Despite the state promising to reimburse counties for the costs of early polling sites, 15 of New Jersey’s 21 counties are planning to open fewer early polling places than the state is willing to pay for. Only one county, Mercer, is spending its own money to open an additional site.
Sussex County, where the state promised to pay for five early voting sites, is opening three.
“Part of it is learning to work with new equipment. We’re using electronic poll books for the first time and the like, and there’s just a lot that went into that. This is our first time working at it, and we’ll have to see what the state requires going forward,” said Allen Langjhar, chair of the Sussex County Board of Elections.
Under a bill Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law in March, counties with fewer than 150,000 registered voters must open at least three early voting sites. Counties with between 150,000 and 300,000 voters must have at least five, and the state’s most populous counties must stand up at least seven.
That law provides for state funding for a greater number of early voting sites — five total for the smaller counties, seven for middle-sized counties, and 10 for the largest — but few counties have taken full advantage of those additional funds, which can also be used to publicize early voting locations.
“We’re spending a lot of effort and money. We’ve got a lot of flyers out there,” said Wyatt Earp, the Ocean County Democratic chairman and secretary of the Ocean County Board of Elections. “We’re telling everybody we can. The biggest part of the reimbursement is they’re paying for PSAs to tell people, to remind people.”
All six counties with fewer than 150,000 registered voters have opted to open just three early voting sites. They could be reimbursed for as many as five.
Adoption varied in the four counties with between 150,000 and 300,000 registered voters, which could each stand up seven state-paid sites. Atlantic and Somerset are each opening six sites, while Gloucester established the minimum of five. It’s not clear how much Mercer’s eighth site will cost the county.
Even large, often heavily Democratic counties that could receive state funds for up to 10 early voting sites have eschewed more widespread adoption. Union, Camden, Burlington, and Morris counties have each decided to proceed with seven early voting sites, the bare minimum for counties of their size. Bergen and Passaic counties each chose to stand up nine sites.
Hudson, Essex, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean counties are each opening 10 sites, the maximum for which they could be reimbursed.
Why so few polling sites?
The reasons for the shortfalls are varied. Some counties still report poll worker shortages that have become common amid the pandemic, and others worry about the administrative strain additional early voting could load on election boards already dealing with a slew of election reforms enacted since March 2020.
Murphy last week said the state had recruited more than 13,000 poll workers in the week after he raised daily poll worker pay from $200 to $300 via executive order, but it’s unclear whether shortages have been resolved statewide. Certain counties already paid more per day, like Camden, which paid poll workers $275 daily before the governor’s announcement.
“We’re still finding poll workers,” said Langjhar. “I can’t say that the increase has helped at finding poll workers. I think it probably makes it a little bit easier, but there hasn’t been any conversation on whether the pay increase has made people more willing to work for the day, or several days, conducting elections.”
In Camden County, officials believe the number of polling sites they will have is the number they need to have. Rich Ambrosino, the Camden County GOP chairman and secretary of the county’s Board of Elections, said he and his fellow commissioners believe seven sites will be sufficient to allow residents access to early voting.
“No one should have to drive more than 15 or 20 minutes to get to an early voting site from anywhere in the county,” he said.
Early voting sites are subject to restrictions not imposed on Election Day polling places.
By law, schools cannot be used as early voting sites, and there’s lingering virus-driven reluctance to opening senior living and similar facilities to voting. Early voting sites must also be accessible by residents with disabilities, must have internet connectivity to allow electronic poll books to communicate with the Statewide Voter Registration System, and must be under surveillance after early voting hours end.
Though ballots are moved to an off-site location at closing time, equipment remains on site.
Early voting begins on Oct. 23 and runs through Halloween. At this point, it’s too late for counties to add additional in-person early voting sites for the 2021 general election.
Advocates still see progress, especially compared to the sporadic placement of secure vote-by-mail drop boxes last year. That process, which has since seen reforms, allowed county election boards — which are composed equally of Republican and Democratic members — to decide the placement of drop boxes with few limits.
“Bipartisan is not nonpartisan,” said Henal Patel, director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s Democracy and Justice Program. “You ended up having, in a lot of places, ‘Well you put one in a blue city, you’ll have to put one in a red city.’ Which, creates a lot of issues because it’s not tied to population or need or anything like that.”
The impact was particularly clear in large cities, and particularly in Newark. New Jersey’s most populous city had just two drop boxes last year, each of them in the city’s Central Ward.
The Brick City will host four early voting sites, one in every ward save the Ironbound. Jersey City, the runner-up in population, will also host four early voting sites, and Paterson, New Jersey’s third most-populous city, will have two.
“I would argue there are some cities that probably could have used an extra locations, or some counties that probably could have done more,” Patel said. “But hopefully at this point, counties will see, lawmakers will see, who’s showing up for early voting, where they’re showing up, how this works so we can use that information to expand to more locations in the future.”
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