A raft of ten bills concerning New Jersey’s elections, including seven spearheaded by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge), passed the Assembly State and Local Government Committee yesterday. If ultimately signed into law, the bills could make important changes to how New Jersey administers its elections and counts its votes.
“The way we count ballots and report them to the public hasn’t necessarily caught up with the advancements we’ve made in getting those votes cast,” Coughlin said at the beginning of yesterday’s committee meeting. “The heart of this package is designed to update the way we count and report ballots so that citizens have trust in the way our elections are conducted and maintain confidence in their outcomes.”
But as is the case with much of the legislation passed in Trenton, the effects of the bills are not necessarily easy to parse. Here is a look at each of the bills and what they hope to accomplish.
A3822 (Passed 5-0)
The heart of the package passed yesterday was A3822, which makes a large number of unrelated changes to the way the state releases vote counts and tabulates mail-in ballots.
Most importantly, the bill requires county boards of elections to release a online list of the number of ballots received, the number of ballots counted, and the number of ballots left to be counted, a tabulation which would be updated daily. The Secretary of State’s office would aggregate those numbers and list them on its own website – a significant advancement for a state that has long delegated its election reporting to county governments.
Coughlin explained the necessity of this change by noting that, right now, voters have little to no sense of what votes have already been counted and what’s still outstanding, leading to conspiracy theories when huge numbers of ballots are suddenly added to the count at once.
“If we do not do more to ensure the average voter can easily understand the process of counting the votes after the polls have closed, all of the work that we have done to increase trust and participation in our democratic process will not produce the results we’ve aimed for, which is strengthening our democracy,” Coughlin said.
The bill also makes two critical changes to the receipt and tabulation of mail-in ballots.
First, as has been proposed in several bills since the November 2021 elections, county boards of election would be permitted to begin processing and counting mail-in ballots five days before the election, potentially allowing for a much more efficient counting process. And second, postmarked mail-in ballots would have to be received within three days after Election Day, rather than six.
This latter provision is intended to limit the slow trickle of late-arriving ballots that can sometimes delay conclusive results for more than a week after the election. But as several testifiers at yesterday’s committee hearing pointed out, it could also lead to the disenfranchisement of voters who voted properly but who were foiled by slow mail service.
“These are ballots of individuals that followed all the rules – they were postmarked before Election Day and put in the mail, and were not received by boards of elections in a timely manner,” said Sandy Matson of the League of Women Voters. “We think that’s an obvious case of disenfranchising voters.”
Another shift made by the bill would be to move the deadline for printing mail-in ballots from 50 days before the election to 45 days, which some testifiers noted could conflict with federal law about mailing ballots to overseas voters.
Finally, the bill would remove the ability of voters to change their partisan registration at the Motor Vehicle Commission, which has some voter registration systems in place through automatic voter registration, and would allow county boards of election to establish schedules for picking up mail-in ballots from ballot drop boxes.
Dale Florio, representing the state’s county clerks and boards of elections, told the committee that while those he represents are generally supportive of the bill, some of its provisions could result in a daunting amount of work in the days after Election Day.
“Whether it’s this bill, or a lot of other bills, you’re asking these men and women to do a lot of things in a very short period of time,” he said.
A3819 (Passed 5-0)
Also passing unanimously was A3819, which is directed at limiting the sending of mail-in ballots to unresponsive voters or to incorrect addresses.
Under the provisions of the bill, a voter on the permanent vote-by-mail lists who does not vote in four consecutive general elections would be removed from the permanent list and be notified by mail of their removal. (Importantly, the voter would remain on the voter rolls, just not on the mail-in list.)
Additionally, if a voter indicates they want their vote-by-mail ballot to be delivered to a secondary address – common among college students, for example – but two mail-in ballots in a row are returned or undeliverable, future mail-in ballots will be sent to the voter’s primary address instead, again with a notification by mail of the change. The bill also includes a $10 million education campaign to inform voters of the new rules.
Henal Patel, the director of the Democracy and Justice Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said at the hearing that she has misgivings about the bill’s potential to disenfranchise voters living at secondary addresses who couldn’t access mail at their primary address.
“We think there might be a way to address [undeliverable ballots] in ways that don’t hurt voters,” she said. “The best solution here is same-day registration, because that gives them a failsafe to go and vote.”
But Eileen Kean, representing the Monmouth County Board of Elections, argued that Patel had it backwards, and that the bill prevents ballots from being uselessly sent to addresses that are likely inactive.
“We think that this is a great bill,” Kean testified. “It is awful that, under the current system, unless a voter notifies us, we have to continually mail [their] ballot to the secondary address. It makes for an untenable situation, because we want to get the correct address.”
A3817 (Passed 5-0)
Like A3822, A3817 includes a large number of critical (and unrelated) provisions, changing the state’s ballot privacy requirements, ballot curing deadlines, and method for reporting mail-in and early votes.
For close watchers of New Jersey elections, the most important change made is to require early and absentee votes to be counted by election district, rather than just by municipality. Currently, all Election Day votes are broken out into highly detailed district-level detail but other votes are lumped together at the municipality level, making it impossible to precisely determine detailed election results in elections with high rates of early and absentee voting.
Florio noted at the committee meeting that this provision could create some problems, notably “cost and a potential lack of privacy” for voters in underpopulated parts of the state, although the bill does include language that would prevent the release of district-level data if it would violate the secrecy of a voter’s ballot.
For average voters, though, the most noticeable part of the bill is its privacy stipulations, which require polling locations to provide privacy sleeves for paper ballots and use privacy screens and shields for ballot scanning machines.
Also important are several parts of the voting process that will now be available online. If the bill is signed into law, voters will be able to use the internet to request absentee ballots via a site maintained by the Secretary of State’s office; change their name or address on their pre-existing voter registration record; and update their party registration.
One last change the bill makes, and the one that drew the most skeptical testimony, is to move forward the deadline for voters to cure any problems with their absentee ballots from 13 days after the election to nine. (Technically, current law states that the deadline is 48 hours before the certification of the election, but that’s typically 13 days.)
“We oppose this change,” Patel said. “Given the realities of mail service, particularly in urban areas, nine days is not enough time to receive and return a cure letter.”
A3818 (Passed 5-0)
Under current law, special fire district elections for capital expenditures can be held at any time of the year; in an effort to streamline the number of Election Days any given year will hold, A3818 would designate four set dates when those elections could occur.
Lynn Nowak, representing the state Association of Fire Districts, threw cold water on the bill, arguing that it was out of sync with the actual timeline of operations in the state’s fire districts – but it was approved by all five members of the committee anyways.
A3820 (Passed 5-0)
New Jersey is a closed-primary state, meaning that voters have to be affiliated with a political party to cast a vote in that party’s primary, but unaffiliated voters can choose to join a party when they arrive at polling places to cast a primary vote.
That system makes it difficult to incorporate mail-in voters. Currently, unaffiliated voters on permanent mail-in lists simply receive both partisan primary ballot and can return one of them, which would then make them a member of that party; A3820 instead requires those voters to send a separate request for a partisan ballot or go to the polls in-person and cast a provisional ballot.
Also included in the bill are provisions to send notifications to those unaffiliated voters informing them of how to affiliate with a party and to require that absentee ballot envelopes be designed so that partisan registration is not visible from the outside.
Patel, echoing previous remarks, said that her organization is broadly in support of some of the changes made but is concerned about the potential for disenfranchisement.
“We should acknowledge that there’s a number of people who need to vote by mail,” she said. “That includes a number of people with disabilities, some elderly people, and also certain students. There has to be a solution here that doesn’t create a two-system process for voters, where some voters just have more access and more time to decide how they want to vote than someone else.”
A3821 (Passed 3-2)
With the increase in absentee voting since the beginning of the pandemic and the advent of early voting in last year’s elections, A3821 is intended to increase the accessibility of early voting and ballot drop box locations. Each county would be required to place at least 50% of its early voting locations and ballot drop boxes in municipalities that had low voter turnout rates, and at least 50% in locations accessible via public transportation.
Those requirements drew universal skepticism from Patel, Matson, Kean, and Florio alike, each of whom noted the myriad potential problems that the bill would cause.
“This could lead to early voting sites changing from election to election, which will lead to voter confusion,” Patel said. “In smaller counties, it could also lead to the clustering of early voting sites in some municipalities regardless of the population size of those towns.”
“It’s not that easy to just magically come up with these sites,” Kean added. “This should not be done by legislation. What works in Essex County is not going to work down in Monmouth County. I really think there’s a lot of problems with this bill.”
“I don’t think you can meet the requirements of this bill and provide accessible voting sites for the majority of your citizens,” Matson said.
The bill advanced from the committee on a party-line vote.
A3823 (Passed 3-2)
A3823 largely concerns behind-the-curtain matters for election workers and voter roll maintenance. The most important provision would require that municipalities notify statewide voter registration authorities of death records every two weeks in the two months leading up to a statewide election, something designed to increase the security of voter rolls but that several testifiers argued could lead to valid voters being inadvertently purged.
The bill would also enter the state into the Electronic Registration Information Center, a national nonprofit that helps states maintain voter rolls; allow some election worker training to be conducted remotely; remove a cap on salaries for boards of education; and exempt poll worker pay from income taxes. Both Republicans on the committee voted against the bill.
A1969 (Passed 5-0)
Minors are already able to serve as election workers for certain hours of the day and for eight hours at a time, but the committee approved a small expansion that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to serve as poll workers from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Election Day only.
“We have read about, heard about, seen firsthand the shortcomings in our election infrastructure when we don’t have enough poll workers,” Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Jersey City), one of the bill’s sponsors, said. “All this bill would do is take the existing restrictions on minors working … and make an exception on Election Day when they’re off from school anyway, so they don’t have to play hooky.”
A3929 (Passed 3-2)
Also cleared by the committee was a bill that would allow more overseas voters to vote in state-level elections. Currently, New Jersey voters living abroad who say they do not intend to return to the country or who say their return is uncertain are only allowed to vote in federal elections, not state ones.
“What this would do is restore the right for those that maintain that nexus, who might be serving their country, or pursuing higher education, or working, or whatever the reason, … to be able to participate in statewide elections,” said Mukherji, once again a sponsor of the bill.
William Chapman, the chairman of Democrats Abroad Mexico, was one of several overseas New Jerseyans who testified in support of the bill.
“All New Jerseyans care about New Jersey, whether or not they’re in New Jersey,” Chapman said. “They don’t just cross the river or get on the plane and forget about their states. And they’re very heavily impacted by what happens here.”
Proposals to open up more elections to overseas voters have been floated many times, including last session. That attempt ran into Republican opposition, as did the bill today; both Republicans on the committee voted against the bill, with no remarks as to why they were doing so.
A3915 (Passed 5-0)
The final bill discussed yesterday was one first proposed by Assemblyman Ronald Dancer (R-Plumsted) last month that would require the state to pay for special elections that its own errors caused.
The bill was inspired in large part by a council election held in Old Bridge, which is part of Dancer’s district. In November, Democrat Jill DeCaro flipped a council seat by 11 votes, but her victory was overturned when it was revealed that an error in the state voter registration database had led to 27 voters being sent the wrong ballot. Old Bridge had to pay for a new election in March, which DeCaro also won, despite the state being to blame.