When it comes to improving New Jersey’s antiquated elections system, Democrats have tried to balance two separate, and sometimes competing, interests: the need to keep elections efficient and secure, and the desire to make them accessible to all.
That’s a needle that a package of seven bills spearheaded by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) has attempted to thread. After passing three separate Assembly committees in recent months, five of the seven bills will be coming up for a full vote tomorrow in the Assembly, where they’re expected to pass.
But although Coughlin and the bills’ various sponsors have tried to keep both voter access and election security in mind, some advocates have criticized certain provisions that they say represent a rollback of voters’ rights.
“Our priority, in every voting bill, is to strengthen our democracy, which has to first begin with making sure voters have all of their rights,” said the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s Henal Patel, who has testified at a number of committee hearings on the bills. “[We need to ensure] that we are not in any way curtailing the rights of voters to cast their ballots … while also making sure that we can run our elections efficiently.”
Some of the key changes the bills make are shortening various deadlines: postmarked absentee ballots would only be accepted up to four days after the election instead of six; voters would have the ability to cure defective ballots up to nine days after the election instead of 13; and absentee ballots would be sent out for non-federal elections 38 days before the election instead of 45.
Making some of those changes, Patel said, would potentially lead to disenfranchisement – 973 valid absentee ballots were received on the sixth day after the 2021 general election, for example – in pursuit of faster election results.
“We understand that … the big takeaway of November 2021 was, ‘Oh, it took too long to get results,” Patel said. “But here’s the thing: that’s a worry that candidates mainly have, and quite honestly pundits and media people – everyone wants results right away. Voters tend to be willing to wait.”
Michael Muller, the former head of the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee, concurred, saying that he didn’t understand how shortening deadlines “is in the best interest of our democracy.”
“I’m absolutely disappointed that New Jersey Assembly Democrats are attempting to advance legislation that undermines our core values of protecting voter access,” he said. “It is my hope that this poorly conceived disenfranchisement package fails to move forward.”
Patel also noted that there are a number of additional changes the bills make regarding automatic vote-by-mail lists and removing dead voters from the rolls that could, in certain circumstances, prevent legitimate voters from casting their ballots. And without same-day voter registration – a measure that has so far been unable to get past Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Linden)’s opposition – Patel said those voters would have little recourse on Election Day.
Activism from Patel, the League of Women Voters, and others appears to have had some concrete results. An earlier version of one bill previously reduced the postmarked absentee ballot time window to three days, for example, but was later amended to four days.
Their concerns are shared by some members of the Democratic caucus, who similarly fear that some provisions will lead to voter disenfranchisement. But with the bills coming up for a full vote tomorrow, those Democrats will have to quickly make a decision about whether to give into those concerns and buck party leadership – something they’re highly unlikely to do.
Republicans, too, have expressed skepticism about many of the bills, particularly with regards to potential costs and ensuring election integrity. And assuming the bills do pass the Assembly tomorrow, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be successful in the Senate, where none of them have even been introduced.
Asked about whether Gov. Phil Murphy supports the legislation, Murphy Press Secretary Alyana Alfaro said the governor doesn’t comment on pending legislation. That’s a rule the governor consistently follows, except when he doesn’t.
What does each bill do?
The core of the Coughlin package is five bills, each of which contains a number of different provisions and all of which will come up for a vote tomorrow.
A3817 requires early and mail-in votes to be reported by district rather than just municipality; reduces the ballot cure deadline from 13 days to nine; allows voters to request absentee ballots and make changes to their voter registration online; and requires privacy sleeves be provided for paper ballots.
A3819 removes voters from automatic absentee lists if they don’t vote absentee in four consecutive general elections; stops sending absentee ballots to secondary addresses if the ballots are undeliverable in two consecutive general elections; and appropriates $5 million for voter education on the changes.
A3820 prevents unaffiliated voters from receiving absentee ballots for primary elections (currently, they receive ballots for both party’s primaries); requires election officials to assist those voters in registering with a party; and requires that absentee ballots be designed such that partisan affiliation is not visible from the outside of the envelope.
A3822 moves the deadline for mailing absentee ballots in non-federal elections to 38 days before the election instead of 45; requires county boards of elections to post online the number of ballots received and the number left to be counted; requires that updated counts be sent at the end of each day to the Secretary of State, who would post online a statewide aggregation of ballots counted and left to be counted; and moves the acceptance deadline for postmarked absentee ballots to four days after the election instead of six; and allows county boards of elections to begin opening (but seemingly not counting) absentee ballots up to five days before the election.
A3823 requires municipalities to notify the voter registration commissioner of death records every two weeks in the two months leading up to a statewide election; allows remote election worker instruction in certain cases; and exempts election worker pay from income taxes. Another provision to eliminate a cap on salaries for boards of election staff appears to have been removed in committee.
Two other bills are numbered as part of Coughlin’s package but aren’t listed on tomorrow’s voting schedule.
A3818 designates four dates throughout the year when fire district special elections can be held, with certain exceptions.
A3821 requires at least 50% of each county’s early voting and ballot drop box locations be in municipalities that had low turnout in the previous election and at least 50% be in locations accessible by public transportation.
And finally, three election-related bills that were not part of Coughlin’s package are also coming up for a vote tomorrow.
A1969 allows 16- and 17-year-olds to serve as poll workers from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Election Day, thus eliminating the eight-hour cap for minors in those specific circumstances.
A3929 allows more overseas voters to vote in state-level elections, specifically overseas voters who say they do not intend to return to the country or who say their return is uncertain.