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Assembly clears early voting bill

Governor has signaled he’ll sign the bill, but Senate must first concur

By Nikita Biryukov, March 01 2021 2:29 pm

The Assembly in a 58-11 vote with one abstention advanced a bill allowing in-person early voting in the Garden State Monday.

The Senate last week approved early voting by a margin of 27-10, but the bill will return to that chamber for a concurrence.

The measure would provide three days of early voting for most primaries, five days of early voting for presidential primaries and nine days of early general election voting. The periods provided by that bill represent significant reductions from previous versions.

“This is a big day for democracy expansion in New Jersey,” said Henal Patel, Democracy and Justice Director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “Voting should be as easy and accessible as possible. Early in-person voting encourages participation, increases satisfaction and results in shorter lines on Election Day.”

Murphy has long backed early voting, calling months earlier for a 30-day period ahead of election day during which voters could cast ballots, and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) has introduced bills creating a 15-day early voting period since 2015.

Previous versions allowed to 15 days of early voting before general elections and municipal races in towns that passed an ordinance approving early voting, but the periods were slashed over cost concerns. The governor has signaled he’ll sign the bill despite the reductions.

“I’ll take anything” on early voting, he said last week.

Early voting comes with a hefty price tag. Counties that don’t already have them must purchase electronic poll books and voting machines that can interface with them.

The bill advanced Monday guarantees $2 million in funding for counties to purchase high-speed printers capable of printing ballots on demand but relies on the state budget for the lion’s share of the costs.

The cost of poll books and voting machines has remained hazy throughout the process. There’s $20 million for early voting in Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget, but those funds are expected to fall short of what’s needed.

Officials in Passaic County have said they’ll need roughly $8 million to cover startup costs, though smaller, more rural counties will likely need less.

In any case, those systems won’t be in place for this year’s primaries — and perhaps this year’s general election — as election officials consider how to implement early voting.

Should it be available in time for the general election, early voting could prove a boon to Murphy as he seeks re-election. While last year’s mostly-mail election boosted turnout, the effect was unequal.

Solidly blue urban counties like Hudson and Essex boasted turnout of just 62% last year, compared to 86% in Hunterdon County, 82% in Monmouth, 79% in Gloucester, and 78% in Burlington, Cape May, Morris, Ocean and Sussex.

Elderly urban — and largely non-white — voters in those areas were less willing to take up mail-in voting.

It’s not clear whether this year’s general election will see a return of mostly-mail voting, though it appears unlikely as the state continues to ramp up vaccinations in the waning months of the pandemic.

Murphy has already announced local elections in April and May won’t follow last year’s system, though he’s so far deferred on how the primary and general elections will be held.

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