Abysmal early voting turnout prompts privacy concerns

By: - June 10, 2022 7:21 am

Only 20,230 voters cast early in-person votes during the state’s three-day primary early voting period this year, a small fraction of the number of total ballots cast. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

Abysmal early voting turnout in Tuesday’s primaries has election officials and voting advocates concerned about voters’ privacy.

Only 20,230 voters cast early in-person votes during the state’s three-day primary early voting period this year. While election officials are still counting votes, they have tallied more than 665,000 total ballots cast so far (the state has roughly 6.4 million registered New Jersey voters).

In many of New Jersey’s 21 counties, only several hundred voters cast their ballots in person before Election Day. In Salem County, just 97 voters cast early in-person votes.

Low turnout could lead to problems with the secrecy of voters’ ballots, said Jesse Burns, the executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

“If you have a handful of votes in that district and somebody cross-references something like VAN, they might know who voted for what,” she said.

NGP VAN is a voter database used by Democratic campaigns and affiliated groups. These kinds of databases can show a resident’s voting history, including the method they used to cast their ballot.

It’s an issue that might go away if New Jersey voters begin to cast early in-person votes in greater numbers, but such shifts in voting culture are slow. Mail-in voting rates, for example, lag in many corners of the state despite the years party organizations have spent urging voters to cast ballots that way.

In the meantime, voting rights advocates warn, ballot secrecy could be breached.

“In Camden County alone, they have like 350 voting districts. They only had like 370 people vote early in Camden County,” Dale Florio, lobbying on behalf of county clerks and election boards, told the Assembly Judiciary Committee Thursday. “By estimates of the county clerk’s office, 38% of those voters could be probably identified to the individual, so there’s obviously a huge concern for privacy.”

The committee on Thursday advanced and amended a suite of bills that would make various changes to New Jersey’s voting procedures, including by adding provisions to allow officials to canvass mail-in ballots before Election Day.

In the package was a bill that would require, among other things, early votes to be reported in the voting district of the voters who cast them. Lawmakers on Thursday amended that bill to allow election officials to report early votes as part of a general tally if district-level reporting would endanger ballot secrecy. The measure does not lay out guidelines for how election officials are to make such determinations. 

The current lack of tallied votes in some districts made it difficult to redraw district boundaries during redistricting last year, Henal Patel, director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s Democracy and Justice Program, told the committee.

Such reporting requirements also help preserve confidence in election systems by clearly delineating where and how votes are coming in, supporters of the bill say.

Though New Jersey upholds ballot secrecy as a principle, its support isn’t absolute. Judges have occasionally ordered the unmasking of ballots during election challenges, as happened during a prolonged challenge to an exceedingly tight 2020 race for South Toms River Council.

The stunningly low turnout for early in-person voting is far from a surprise. The primaries are only the second set of large-scale New Jersey elections to use early in-person voting, which Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law last March. In last year’s general elections, about 3.1% of voters cast their ballots at early voting stations. (The early voting period for general elections is nine days.)

“There’s still a lot of Election Day voting culture that exists, so it’s a shift, and we don’t really have enough data yet to know what the low numbers for in-person early voting mean for the primary. Maybe nothing,” said Burns, who added the state’s “turnout overall is continuously disappointing.”

Unofficial election results posted by the Secretary of State’s office Thursday show 665,824 tallied votes, for a preliminary turnout rate of 10.3%. That number will rise somewhat in the coming days as election officials add late-arriving mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day and provisional ballots to their counts.

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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.