Assembly panel advances voting reforms meant to speed election results

Changes sought after winners of a slew of November races weren’t initially clear

By: - May 13, 2022 7:10 am

Lawmakers from both parties have sought changes to election law after a slew of November races weren't known for weeks. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

In a show of bipartisanship, an Assembly panel unanimously approved a series of tweaks to New Jersey’s voting systems Tuesday.

The proposed changes include allowing ballots to be counted before Election Day, truncating the state’s grace period for late-arriving mail-in ballots, and requiring rolling reporting of election results.

Lawmakers have sought changes to the state’s election laws amid growing frustration with slow reporting of election results seen in recent years, especially after last year’s gubernatorial and legislative races.

“The heart of this package is designed to update the way we count and report ballots so that citizens have trust in the way our elections are conducted and maintain confidence in their outcomes,” said Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex).

Foremost among the bills is A3822. That measure, sponsored by Coughlin, would cut the grace period for late-arriving vote-by-mail ballots postmarked by Election Day from six days to three, allow election officials to begin opening the outer envelopes of mail-in ballots up to five days before an election, and permit the counting of those ballots three days before polls open on Election Day.

Some of those provisions have drawn opposition from voting advocates, who warned the Assembly State and Local Government Committee Thursday that slashing the grace period in half would leave some voters disenfranchised through no fault of their own.

“I wish this was a situation where counties were receiving all the ballots that were coming in within those three days. If so, this would be great, fine. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case,” said Henal Patel, director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s Democracy and Justice Program. “They followed all the rules. They voted by Election Day. It was postmarked. They shouldn’t be disenfranchised because of the Postal Service.”

Patel said more than 1,000 mail-in ballots arrived in the latter half of the grace period during 2021’s elections, including more than 900 that reached officials on the sixth and final day those ballots could be accepted.

Nearly 2.65 million ballots were cast in last year’s general election.

Coughlin said the bill’s limit of the grace period is intended to “keep elections moving,” adding that “things don’t change much” after three days.

A shorter grace period also provides election officials with more time to count provisional ballots, which must be tallied after machine and mail-in votes to prevent possible instances of double voting.

“We think this is a fabulous bill. We think changing the deadline to three days makes everybody’s life just so much easier because our goal is to complete the election,” Monmouth County Board of Elections Commissioner Eileen Kean said Thursday.

Other changes sought

The early counting provisions are also an effort to speed the delivery of election results. In recent years, some races have taken more than a week to call as election officials continue to add votes in the days following the close of polls.

Coughlin’s bill would also require election officials to report the number of ballots received, counted, and not yet counted by type, a bid to increase transparency in the reporting of election results. That means early in-person votes, mail-in votes, Election Day machine votes, and provisional votes would each be reported separately, giving a clear picture of how many and what kind of ballots remain uncounted.

Some expressed concern those provisions could stretch thin already strained election workers.

“Whether it’s this bill or a lot of other bills, you’re asking these men and women to do a lot of things in a very short period of time,” said Dale Florio, a lobbyist who spoke to the committee on behalf of county clerks and election officials.

He added election workers would be unable to fully comply with the mail-in ballot reporting provisions because they have no way to tell how many would reach officials by the deadline.

“We don’t know what’s still out there. You have the mailboxes. You have the (mail-in ballots) that are still coming in. We just don’t know,” he said.

While bipartisan support suggests Coughlin’s bill has a clear path to law, it remains to be seen how Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and Gov. Phil Murphy react to the Assembly bills.

Scutari appears likely to support some provisions advanced Thursday.

“I certainly have been talking about early counting. I think that makes a lot of sense. We haven’t gone any further on it,” Scutari said.

He added he has no position on the proposal to reduce the vote-by-mail grace period.

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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.

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