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

Murphy says threat of prison will stop election officials from releasing early results

Governor won’t say how county chairs can separate election board jobs from campaign posts

By Nikita Biryukov, September 02 2020 4:04 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy isn’t prepared to call for county party chairs to resign from their seats on county election boards over a provision allowing the panels to begin canvassing ballots 10 days before election day.

“I haven’t thought through who should be on a board or not on a board, but the penalties are significant, and that applies to everybody,” Murphy said, referring to a provision in the new law that criminalizing leaking early election results.

The law, which codified many portions of Murphy’s executive order laying out the hybrid strategy for this year’s general election, states that anyone authorized to canvass mail-in ballots “who knowingly discloses to the public the contents of a mail-in ballot” before polls close on election day would be guilty of a third-degree crime.

Such crimes carry a prison sentence of up to five years and a maximum fine of $15,000.

It’s not clear how that measure would prevent party leaders who sit on election boards from using knowledge of early returns to direct campaign strategies in the closing days of an election, or if it would at all.

At least six county chairs, including Democratic State Chairman John Currie, sit on county election boards.

“To me it is like insider trading in that respect,” Murphy said. “You may have knowledge, but if you trade on that knowledge and you’re convicted, you’ll go to jail and you’ll pay a big price.”

It’s not clear whether the law would prevent an individual member of an elections board from directing a candidate to spend their resources where early returns suggest they’re most need. The portion of the law criminalizing leaks appears to be narrow in scope, though it’s possible prosecutors could seek to enforce the intent rather than the letter of the law.

Election officials were already able to begin counting votes before the close of polls prior to the new law’s passage, though they could only do so on election day. Even so, leaks are the rule, not the exception.

Politically active individuals and some media outlets, including the New Jersey Globe, have  received information about early returns on election day, and county election boards are largely made up of political operatives who will now leave meetings with greater knowledge about voting trends than they’ve previously had access to.

Murphy said he didn’t get any early numbers when he ran for governor in 2017.

“I’ve never heard anything on tallies before, either my election or any other one, so the answer is I don’t have any color my personal history,” Murphy said.

Often, election board commissioners, who are appointed by county chairs and approved by the governor, participate in campaign meetings shortly after finishing their business on the statutory body.

The provision allowing for early ballot counts was sought by Murphy’s office to ensure the state could meet its certification deadline so the electoral college could be ready to vote on December 14.

“The point here was to allow us, with as high a degree of level of certainty as possible to be able to certify all of our elections by Nov. 20th, and that’s the rationale,” the governor said.

But the administration has previously regarded early ballot counting with a wary eye. There was no such provision in Murphy’s order mandating every active registered voter in the state receive a postage-prepaid mail-in ballot.

State Sen. Jim Beach (D-Voorhees), who is also Camden County’s Democratic chairman, sponsored a bill that would have allowed election officials to begin counting ballots before election day, but that bill died after criticism from Republicans and progressives who warned widespread leaks would buttress the campaigns of party-backed candidates.

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