Voting reform package steams toward full Assembly vote

Republicans opposed two bills but joined Democrats in backing most

By: - June 15, 2022 6:49 am

The package of bills include provisions on early counting and tweaks to the state’s mail-in voting systems. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

A series of voting reforms, including provisions on early counting and tweaks to the state’s mail-in voting system, is headed to the Assembly floor after a voting reform legislative package won approval from the chamber’s appropriations committee Tuesday.

The five voting bills, championed by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), are pitched as a response to moves in other states to restrict when and how voters cast ballots. They will likely face more amendments before the full Assembly votes on them.

“At a critical and harshly partisan time in our country, as others have moved to make it harder not easier to vote and the federal government has often been unable to act decisively, I think we can be exceptionally proud to boast that New Jersey is bucking the trend,” Coughlin said last week.

Voting rights advocates and representatives for New Jersey’s election officials speaking to the committee Tuesday raised concerns about ballot privacy, signature verification, and the chance that some reforms would disenfranchise voters.

Henal Patel, director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s democracy and justice program, opposed a measure she said would leave unaffiliated voters less time to vote in primaries than those already registered to a political party.

Under existing law, unaffiliated voters who have asked to be sent mail-in ballots for every election receive ballots for Republican and Democratic primaries and, like in-person unaffiliated voters, have up until Election Day to choose which to return. Lawmakers have proposed sending these unaffiliated voters party declaration forms first.

Under the new rules, Patel noted, election officials must first process the party declarations, giving these voters less time to cast their ballots.

“Over 21,000 unaffiliated voters voted in this election last week. All of those voters would have been impacted by this law had it been in effect already,” she said. “We can’t create a system where we have two tiers of rights for voters.”

Philip Hensley, a democracy policy analyst for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, asked the committee to add a notification requirement to a bill that would see voters removed from the state’s perpetual vote-by-mail list for four years of inactivity.

Dale Florio, a lobbyist representing the state’s county clerks and election boards, asked the committee to exempt a small number of district-level in-person early voting results from disclosure under the Open Public Records Act until they could be lumped with election results later released by the Secretary of State. Florio cited concerns that low turnout could expose some residents’ votes.

Lawmakers last week approved provisions to address these concerns, but those changes did not bar the release of district-level election results under OPRA.

“In small towns where you might have just one voter per district, when those votes are tallied, it’s very easy to see who that person is and whom they might have voted for,” Florio said.

Patel praised a provision in a separate bill that would allow voters to request a mail-in ballot while registering online but said its implementation should come sooner. Under the bill, that system must be in place by January 2026.

That provision drew Florio to repeat a request that the Legislature remove provisions allowing voters to electronically sign some requests for mail-in ballots. Such signatures, he warned, often don’t align with handwritten signatures on mail-in ballot certificates, and this could increase the risk of fraud and swell the number of legitimate voters who would have to cure their ballots to have their votes counted.

“In 2020, as we all know, we were an all vote-by-mail election. Over 50,000 vote-by-mails were rejected and roughly a third of those had to do with signature issues,” Florio said. “I can show you many examples of an electronic signature and a signature that I actually write myself. They’re wildly different.”

All four of the committee’s Republican members opposed that bill over cost and privacy concerns, while three of them voted against, without comment, the bill requiring unaffiliated voters to declare their party affiliation to vote by mail in a primary. The other voting bills passed unanimously, but no companion measures have yet been introduced in the Senate.

The committee also heard some back and forth over a bill that would require election officials to clear dead voters from the rolls 10 days before an election.

Patel said that provision could disenfranchise some living voters with names similar to a deceased person. To vote in a New Jersey election, a voter must be registered 21 days before it is held, and voters taken off the rolls 10 days before Election Day would have no recourse unless the state enacted same-day registration, she said.

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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.