There’s no chance in-person early voting systems will be in place in time for the state’s June 8 primaries, five election officials told the New Jersey Globe, and they may not be fully prepared by November.
The officials’ warnings directly contradict Gov. Phil Murphy, who on Monday said he believed the system could be in place by primary day if lawmakers moved quickly enough.
“Early voting, without commenting on the specifics of the bill, I’m all in, and I think if we move quickly enough, I believe it can be in effect for primaries,” he said at Monday’s virus briefing.
Election officials’ concerns are numerous, but the Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS) is foremost among them.
Electronic poll books needed to prevent voters who cast early ballots — either at the polls or through the mail — from voting again will still rely on the SVRS. That system was overloaded to the point of repeated crashes at numerous points in 2020, and the system’s instabilities won’t be repaired until at least this summer.
Officials fear the system will collapse again under the added strain, possibly failing to record early votes cast in-person. Further, there’s a concern that early votes won’t be recorded in real time, a vulnerability that could enable voters to cast additional ballots.
An early voting bill set to be heard by an Assembly panel Thursday ends the early voting period on the Sunday before election day. That provision, which is also included in a substantively similar bill advanced by a Senate committee in August, should limit that vulnerability somewhat.
Further, machines used for early voting — some counties will have to purchase new voting booths that can interface with electronic poll books — will require a hard-wired internet connection for security reasons. That creates another logistical hurdle for election officials.
The process is made more complicated by the lack of an agreement on early voting.
Though Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) all back some form of in-person early voting, Sweeney on Monday told the New Jersey Globe they’ve yet to reach a deal on what the bill should look like.
The current versions provide early voting only for the general election and May municipal elections in towns that adopt an ordinance allowing residents to cast ballots in-person before election day. Primary races aren’t included, and there’s not yet a clear estimate on the cost of creating early voting infrastructure, though it’s expected to be in excess of $20 million.
The lack of a stress test is also giving election officials jitters. Though New Jersey’s 2020 general election, conducted almost entirely using mail-in ballots, ran smoothly, that was largely because it had already held similar mostly mail elections for municipal races and primaries earlier in the year.
The latter races saw far larger numbers of rejected than the general, largely because of further reforms, like a longer grace period for late-arriving ballots and a law requiring voters be given an opportunity to cure deficient ballots, made to remedy problems in the earlier contests.
One election official told the New Jersey Globe they would feel far more comfortable with early voting if it was tested in smaller races. That won’t happen this year either. Even if the early voting bill was signed into law tomorrow — an impossibility — it won’t be enacted for another 120 days.
Election officials would then have 15 days to submit early voting plans, which would have to be approved or denied and remedied by the Secretary of State’s office in the 45 days after the bill goes into effect.
The earlier learning opportunities, apart from the general election, won’t arrive until 2022.
The timing troubles may prove a thorn in Murphy’s side as he ramps up his campaign for a second term. Though Republican voters largely accepted mail-in voting last year, the same can’t be said of non-white voters in urban areas.
That poses a potential problem for Murphy, who will likely need high turnout and large margins in urban Democratic strongholds in places like Hudson and Essex Counties.