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Gov. Phil Murphy. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Murphy: Early voting should apply to primaries

Bills include only general, some May municipal elections

By Nikita Biryukov, January 19 2021 2:58 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy wants the state’s still-nascent early voting program to include its primaries.

“I would hope it applies to primary and general elections,” he said at Tuesday’s virus briefing. “I see no reason why it wouldn’t.”

Early voting bills introduced in both chambers of the legislature would create a two-week period during which residents can cast ballots, in-person, at various locations throughout the state.

There’s no agreement on final details, but those bills, as well as a substantially similar bill that advanced past a Senate panel this summer, would allow early voting only for the general election and for May municipal races in towns that pass an ordinance approving an early voting program.

Neither includes primaries, though a senior source in the Senate last week told the New Jersey Globe they expect that to change as the bill develops.

The governor also sought to downplay an earlier prediction that early voting could be up and running before primary day.

“I think my team believes I’ve been showing too much optimism on the ability to get early voting in for this primary, and I think that’s going to be really hard,” he said. “I don’t want to sugarcoat that.”

Election officials have told the New Jersey Globe they won’t be ready to administer and early voting program by June, but they’re more concerned about an untested general election rollout.

Unlike the mostly mail elections the state held last year, there won’t be a trial run for early voting if lawmakers push to include it for the general.

Municipal elections last may saw a bump in turnout, but they also saw a staggering number of mail-in ballots rejected, most often because the ballot arrived too late or the voter committed an error filling it.

Rejection rates fell the next month, and they fell again in November as election officials became more comfortable with administering races handled almost entirely through the post.

They’re concerned now that an untested in-person early voting system could malfunction and essentially erase votes or not properly mark voters who cast their ballots early.

Added to that are fears that the Statewide Voter Registration System, which electronic poll books used for early voting will rely on, may be unable to handle the added strain.

The system was overloaded to the point of repeated crashes at numerous points in 2020, and its instabilities won’t be repaired until at least this summer.

The bills floating around in the legislature, both of which were pulled from committee agendas earlier this month, wouldn’t be enacted until 120 days after their passage, and election officials would still have some time to formulate and enact their early voting plans.

But it’s not clear what the deadline is, even to Murphy.

“I don’t have an exact date for when we need to get it done by for the general election,” he said.

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