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

Murphy signs early voting into law

Joined by Abrams, New Jersey makes counterpoint to voting restrictions enacted in Republican states

By Nikita Biryukov, March 30 2021 1:17 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law on Tuesday a bill allowing early in-person voting in New Jersey, winning praise from ballot-access advocates as other states move to restrict voting rights.

“Today — I don’t say this lightly — New Jersey reminds the nation that Democracy is made stronger when we make it easier for the people’s voices to be heard, that our democracy wins when we open the doors of our polling places wide instead of slamming them shut,” the governor said.

The new law requires election officials to operate early voting centers in the nine days preceding a general election. Early voting periods for primaries are shorter, at three days for non-presidential primaries and five days for presidential primaries.

Within those periods, early voting centers must be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. On Sundays, they close at 6 p.m.

“We continue the fight to expand access to voting, and today with the governor’s signing of the legislation, early in-person voting will become law in New Jersey,” said State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair), the bill’s prime Senate sponsor. “We know that preventing voter intimidation, passing early in-person voting and all of the other expansions the governor talked about will ensure our fundamental right to have our voices heard.”

The law also appropriates $2 million for the purchase of high-speed printers that could be used to print ballots down to a given district in a given town on demand.

Election boards will need to purchase electronic poll books and voting machines that can interface with them to stand up the early voting system. The price tag for those purchases is expected to run into the tens of millions. Though estimates have varied widely, it won’t be lower than $20 million.

Election officials have said startup costs could run as high as $80 million, though those figures include the cost of new voting machines. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) last week said the state wouldn’t foot the bill for new voting machines.

“We’re not going to buy their voting machines,” he said Thursday. “I ran a county government too. They’re trying to get us to buy voting machines for them.”

The early voting periods in the bill Murphy signed Tuesday fall short of what both Sweeney and the governor have sought over the last eight months and in years prior.

Murphy, when asked by the New Jersey Globe about early voting in July, floated a 30-day period. Sweeney for years had introduced a sweeping voting reform bill that included a 15-day early voting period.

Neither party was thrilled with the truncated window. Sweeney said labor costs were a limiting factor, while Murphy said he’d take what he could get.

“In-person early voting will only strengthen our democracy further by providing voters with even more viable options,” Secretary of State Tahesha Way said. “Hopefully, we’ll see record turnout again this November.”

New Jersey’s move comes as other states across the country, particularly those with state legislatures held by Republicans, move to impose new restrictions on voting.

Georgia Republicans last week swiftly passed and signed into law a bill imposing sweeping restrictions on voting.

That bill included provisions requiring voter identification for mail-in ballots, limited the use of ballot drop boxes and allowed state officials to take over county election boards, a provision opponents say will allow Republican officials to decide which ballots to count in heavily Democratic districts.

“In 43 states across the country, we are seeing an onslaught, an attack on democracy,” said Democratic voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, who attended the virtual bill signing. “There’s one Arizona representative who actually explained it. This is what he said: That they don’t want every vote to count. They don’t believe that quantity matters, that it’s about the quality of the vote. My question is how do you qualify the utility of a vote?”

Republicans in those states cite low faith in last year’s election among their rank-and-file that plummeted after former President Donald Trump and other members of the GOP baselessly claimed the race was rigged.

“Let’s be clear, the ongoing fallacy of voter fraud hides the true motivation of the bill Georgia passed and what other state legislatures are considering: that it’s an attempt to disenfranchise voters, most often Black and Brown voters, because some elected officials are more concerned about who votes for them than they are for ensuring every eligible American is allowed to participate in our Democracy,” said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick), the bill’s Assembly sponsor.

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