Bill to OK early vote counting is temporarily torpedoed by Senate absences

Dems use procedural maneuver to keep bill from failing

By: - May 26, 2022 2:26 pm

Sen. Kristen Corrado (R-Passaic) said election officials would be too tempted to leak early results of vote counting done before Election Day. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

A measure that would have allowed election officials to count early votes before the polls close on Election Day failed to advance Thursday after opposition from Republicans and a single Democrat.

The bill stalled after a 20-16 vote in the upper chamber but was pulled from the agenda without the voting period being closed, a move that allows the bill to return at a future session without being reintroduced. Bills need yes votes from a majority of a chamber’s members — in this case, 21 — to succeed.

The measure would allow election officials to begin tallying early in-person votes the day before an election and cleared officials to canvass mail-in ballots up to 10 days before an election. Supporters say it would allow election officials to finalize races sooner.

It was waylaid after Republicans — including Sen. James Holzapfel (R-Ocean), who backed the bill in committee — and State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) moved to oppose it on the floor.

“This bill would allow for undermining the sanctity of the vote, and if we have to wait for the vote, nothing happens, right? You just wait for the vote,” Gill said on the Senate floor. “The government is not under attack. Somebody else doesn’t take the seat, but you just wait, and we have waited in the past.”

Though bills introduced in previous legislative sessions would also have allowed election officials to begin tallying some votes before Election Day, the proposal received a second wind after 2021’s legislative elections, where voluminous vote-by-mail returns and slow counts of the same left some races without a clear victor for days.

Four members did not attend Thursday’s Senate session, including Democratic Sens. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden), and Ron Rice (D-Essex). Their presence would almost certainly have won the bill the 21 votes it needed to pass the chamber.

Republicans opposed the measure over a concern that early counts would leak to campaigns and lend them an unfair advantage over opponents in the closing days of a race.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have the faith that my colleagues have that this doesn’t leak out,” said Sen. Bob Singer (R-Ocean). “We have leaks from the White House. We have leaks from the governor’s office. We have leaks from the Senate president’s office. We have leaks from the caucuses. Are we kidding ourselves?”

The measure would criminalize early-result leaks and require a penalty of up to five years in prison. Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Passaic), a former county clerk, said having 10 days to view early-voting results would be too big a temptation for election officials, some of whom lead county political parties.

Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), the bill’s prime sponsor, noted the state allowed early counting of mail-in ballots in 2020, when Gov. Phil Murphy ordered races to be conducted entirely through mail-in ballots, with few exceptions.

“They didn’t go around telling people, ‘Oh, Singleton’s ahead, so you could stay home’ or ‘Singleton needs more votes, so you better hurry up and get your votes in.’ It didn’t happen,” he said. “It didn’t happen then, and it won’t happen now.”

Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), whose own 2021 reelection was not called for days, said delayed counts — especially those spurred by slow counts of mail-in ballots, which tend to be heavily Democratic — could enflame election conspiracies.

“If we don’t get back to a place where we know election results on election night, we’re going to get conspiracy theories, and we’re going to continue to get people thinking things went wrong,” said Gopal.

Gopal pulled ahead of his challenger after officials began counting mail-in ballots. The clerk in Gopal’s county is a Republican, he noted.

Elected Republicans in New Jersey largely did not allege conspiracy theories over last year’s election, though some rank-and-file voters did claim foul play when Gov. Phil Murphy pulled ahead of challenger Jack Ciattarelli after mail-in ballots were counted following polls closing.

The bill’s future is unclear. Singleton’s bill has yet to advance in the Assembly, which has  advanced a separate bill sponsored by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) that would allow election officials to begin processing mail-in ballots up to six days before Election Day and begin counting them three days before the same, among other election changes.

Coughlin’s bill, which cleared an Assembly committee in a unanimous vote earlier this month and does not yet have a Senate counterpart, would also truncate the state’s grace period for late-arriving mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day from six days to three.

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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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