Lawmakers eye new rules for election results reporting

Election officials in support, but some workload concerns persist

By: - May 12, 2023 3:11 pm

Sponsors hope that requiring nightly reporting of unofficial results and some uncounted ballots will combat skepticism of election results. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

A panel of Assembly lawmakers unanimously approved a measure Thursday that would require election officials to report results daily starting on the day of the election, a key step in a quest to boost confidence in election results.

The bill, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), would require county clerks to post unofficial results daily by 9 p.m. until all votes are counted. It would grant officials until 11:59 p.m. to post the preliminary results on Election Day.

By issuing unofficial results regularly and including some information about uncounted ballots, lawmakers hope to restore faith in elections damaged by unfounded voter fraud claims propagated by former President Donald Trump.

“We see the impact of that since 2020 in New Jersey when, after the ’21 gubernatorial election in particular, there was confusion by New Jersey voters on how the reports were done that day, and confusion on whether it was 100% of the votes cast, whether there’s still votes to be counted,” said Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex), the bill’s prime Senate sponsor.

Because New Jersey Democrats have spent years — in some cases more than a decade — building up vote-by-mail operations, election counts in the past that initially excluded mail ballots showed some Republicans leading on Election Day only to see their leads evaporate as more ballots were added to the count, fueling fraud conspiracies.

That happened in 2021 when GOP gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli racked up a lead in Election Day votes from voting machines. Though he trailed overall, national outlets and others initially reported him as leading Gov. Phil Murphy.

Some of the votes that made Murphy the eventual victor had already been tallied but were only reported in remote corners of some county websites. (Ciattarelli never claimed election fraud.)

Sen. Andrew Zwicker said he’s spoken to voters convinced that slow reporting of election results in 2021 was evidence of fraud. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

“A couple months after that, I had a Zoom meeting with a group of constituents who were convinced that there was election fraud, and it didn’t matter what I said,” Zwicker said. “It’s critically important that we make sure that the information’s out there on election night and in the days after.”

Changes to New Jersey election law and the growing prevalence of mail voting in the state have upended election result timelines, and final tallies sometimes remain unclear for days after polls close, even when the final margin is too wide to be changed by a recount.

The measure advanced Thursday would require election officials, as far as is practicable, to post — in a single report — the number of ballots they have received, those they’ve counted, and those they’ve left to count. That includes the number of mail-in ballots received, tallied, or still need to be processed.

Beth Thompson, supervisor of the Hunterdon County Board of Elections, said new technology adopted by elections workers in recent years would allow election officials to meet the bill’s reporting requirements.

But she stressed that in presidential and other high-turnout races, officials may seek judicial permission to depart from some of the timelines mandated by the bill.

The measure would require the New Jersey secretary of state to draft standardized reporting guidelines for each of the state’s counties. At present, there’s little uniformity in the format or timing of counties’ election results reporting, and some counties typically report results far more slowly and less frequently than others.

It would not require election officials to count ballots each day, only that they report unofficial results.

Amendments made to the bill Thursday removed a requirement that electronic poll books and voting machines be able to produce those reports automatically, a requirement election officials said would be burdensome.

Another newly added provision would allow election officials to eschew some of the bill’s reporting requirements if following them would breach ballot secrecy. The bill comes with a $1.5 million appropriation.

Election officials continue to worry about workload, a concern that has dogged many of the reforms enacted in recent years.

Zwicker said he is discussing the bill with Senate leadership, with hopes of passing it in time for this year’s general election. Even if it were signed into law before June 6, the bill would be inactive for this year’s primaries, partly to give election officials a sort of dry run.

“We’ve thrown so much at them. That’s another reason why I’d like to get it done this year for a relatively low-turnout election to help get the bugs out,” he said. “If the process is in place this year and we fine-tune, the turnout that will go up next year, they should be ready for that.”

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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.