Bill advances that would allow election officials to count ballots early

By: - March 4, 2022 6:57 am

(Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

The Senate’s government committee advanced a bill Thursday that would allow election officials to begin counting mail-in and early-vote ballots before polls close, a move that comes as lawmakers have become more frustrated with delays in reporting election results.

The bill, which cleared the panel in a 4-1 vote, would allow county election boards to begin canvassing mail-in ballots 10 days before Election Day and early in-person votes the day before an election.

“I’m from Camden County, and we have the potential of over 100,000 vote-by-mails that need to be counted,” said Sen. James Beach (D-Camden), the panel’s chairman, adding, “I know at least in our county, it would take so much pressure off the election officials. That’s why I believe it’s a good bill.”

In recent years, election results in some counties have trickled out, with true winners in legislative and congressional races unknown for days or, in some counties, longer. Last year, Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) trailed by about 500 votes on election night. More than a week later, he led by about 2,700.

Existing law allows election officials to begin tallying mail-in ballots at 6 a.m. on Election Day. While election officials in some counties complete their counts under that timeline without incident, others work more slowly, particularly in large, heavily Democratic counties where mail-in voting is more popular.

Election officials say they need the additional time to account for surges in mail-in voting seen in recent years. In 2017, just 8% of voters cast ballots through the mail. During last year’s general election, that number rose to 23%.

The state’s adoption of early in-person voting compounded counting problems. Early in-person votes cannot be tallied until polls close.

“Our ability to count the early votes is also critical. When they put that into place last year, we were prohibited from even opening those until 8 p.m.,” said Somerset County Clerk Steve Peter. “This way, we can have that done by the time the cartridges start to come in from the polling places.”

The bill won the support of the Constitutional Officers Association of New Jersey and the State Board of Election Officials.

Amendments made to the bill at Thursday’s committee hearing would allow county clerks, instead of county election boards, to canvass early in-person ballots and require they send those results to the board before polls open on Election Day.

It would also require mail-in and early-voting tallies to be posted online on election night, with the counts split by ballot type.

Similar legislation proposed in 2020 that temporarily allowed election workers to begin counting early saw significant opposition from Republicans and some progressives who feared leaked early results would give establishment-backed Democrats an edge.

Much of that opposition appears to have ebbed after 2021’s elections, which saw Republicans emerge with sizeable leads on election night that thinned as more heavily Democratic mail-in ballots were tallied.

Some resistance remains.

“Election integrity is crucial, and you don’t want to give anybody any possibility that something is leaked that should not be leaked, but there’s no reason it should take that long to count vote-by-mail ballots,” said Sen. Vince Polistina (R-Atlantic), the only committee member who voted against the bill. “You’re putting them in a machine and they’re scanning them, and it should give you the results.”

The bill makes the early release of election results a crime that carries a penalty of up to five years behind bars.

The measure has not yet been heard by the Assembly State and Local Government Committee.

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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.