State lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow election officials to count ballots earlier in New Jersey, months after an election where the results of many races were in limbo until after Election Day — including the contest for governor.
The bill, S856/AA2236, would let officials in the state count early in-person votes a day before the window on early voting closes and allow vote by mail ballots be counted 10 days ahead of elections. Currently, ballots cast during the early voting period aren’t counted until polls close on Election Day and mail ballots don’t get opened until the morning of Election Day.
Proponents of the measure argue it takes some stress off election officials and gives voters confidence in elections because results are more likely to be announced on Election Day.
Gov. Phil Murphy won a second term in November but there were no bottles of champagne popped on Election Day. Instead, he told a dejected group of supporters at his victory party they’d “have to wait a little while longer” while more votes were counted and sent them packing for the evening.
The Democrat ultimately declared victory over Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli in the same spot, but a day later. Murphy won by 3 percentage points, or about 84,200 votes out of 2.6 million cast.
“Voting is a cornerstone of our democracy,” state Sen. Troy Senator Singleton, the bill’s prime sponsor, said in a statement. “Through our efforts to make voting more accessible via vote by mail and early voting, we have encouraged even more New Jerseyans to participate in the electoral process.”
“However, last year’s election results were significantly delayed due to the counting of these ballots,” Singleton, D-Burlington, added. “By allowing county clerks to begin processing early votes and (vote by mail ballots) before Election Day, we hope to restore timeliness and confidence in the process, while maintaining and upholding election integrity.”
The bill cleared its first legislative hurdle by a 4-1 vote Thursday, when it moved out of the state Senate government committee.
State Sen. Vincent Polistina, R-Atlantic, was the only member to vote against the measure.
“It shouldn’t take eight days though, I mean, if we need more machines or we need more poll workers, or we need more of an ability to count these things the day of the election, then we should do that,” he said. “There’s no reason why it should take that long.”
But it did take that long to declare the winner in some races, including state Sen. Vin Gopal’s tight re-election victory, which took a week.
“I was down by 500 votes on election night and ended up 2,700 (votes), so that’s quite a swing in eight days,” Gopal, D-Monmouth, said.
“There’s got to be a process where we know the results on election night,” he said. “This is for the public. This is how you get conspiracy theories.”
Gopal and others point to the increasing number of people who either vote early in person, which happened for the first time in the last election after New Jersey created the ability to vote early, or vote by mail.
More than 800,000 voters in the state are currently signed up to vote by mail among the state’s nearly 6.6 million registered voters. That number is far higher than the roughly 200,000 people who voted by mail prior to the coronavirus pandemic.
New Jersey now allows people to vote early in person for nine days ahead of general elections and three days prior to primary elections.
Early vote counts need to be kept confidential, according to the bill. It would be a third-degree crime to leak early results.
The bill must now be passed by the full state Senate and Assembly and signed by Murphy to become law.
If that happens, wouldn’t be the first time vote by mail ballots were allowed to be counted early. Murphy signed a bill into law in 2020 that let the ballots be counted 10 days ahead of Election Day after all of the state’s registered voters were sent a mail-in ballot because of the pandemic.
MORE MONEY FOR POLL WORKERS
The committee also unanimously approved legislation that would increase pay for election workers from $200 a day to $300 a day.
The bill, S1290/A208, also appropriates $7 million to the Department of State to help fund the payments. The state pays the bulk of the cost to pay poll workers and county election boards cover the rest. Under the bill, the state would pay $225 and counties would spend $75 to pay poll workers $300 a day.