Home>Highlight>Assembly panel advances early voting bill

Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Assembly panel advances early voting bill

Clerks say SVRS improvements must come first

By Nikita Biryukov, October 19 2020 11:50 am

An Assembly panel on Monday approved a bill that would allow New Jerseyans to cast ballots in-person for two weeks ahead of election day.

The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick), would allow two weeks early in-person voting for the state’s May non-partisan municipal elections and November general elections. It does not apply to primary races, nor will it be in effect for this year’s general election.

Under the bill, counties would operate between three and seven — based on county population — early voting centers and would be required to obtain electronic poll books needed to administer an early voting system, according to a draft bill reviewed by the New Jersey Globe.

The Assembly State and Local Government Committee advanced the measure in a vote along party lines, with Assemblymen Erik Simonsen (R-Lower) and Ned Thomson (R-Brick) voting no.

The measure requires New Jersey’s treasurer make appropriations to fund the early voting mandate, though it leaves the size of those appropriations to treasury officials.

It does not explicitly require the state government to pay for electronic poll books, which are needed to administer an in-person early voting program. Past estimates have said obtaining electronic poll books would cost the state more than $20 million in one-time upfront costs.

The bill saw some measured opposition from county clerks of both parties, who said they supported early voting but did not believe the Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS) was sufficiently prepared for such a program.

“Speaking on behalf of the clerks, I think we’ve learned with this primary and with this general election that the Statewide Voter Registration System needs quite a bit of work before we start anything new with it,” Hunterdon County Clerk Mary Melfi said.

Melfi, a Republican, is a former chair of the New Jersey Association of counties.

Like his GOP counterpart in Hunterdon, Somerset County Clerk Steve Peter, a Democrat, supported early voting broadly but worried that issues with SVRS could hamper its launch.

“We’re fielding phone calls right and left from people who are trying to get on the system, can’t get on it, and that’s taking away from the time that we need to get our stuff done,” he said.

Recent changes to SVRS, including online voter registration and a feature allowing voters to track their mail-in ballots, have left clerks who are already stretched thin by a mandate to mail nearly 5.8 million ballots inundated with calls.

“It is, at this state, still rather buggy, and it’s causing our office quite a bit of problems,” Peter said.

During the primary, the SVRS experienced a litany of technical issues, including frequent crashes, unsolicited registration changes and a bug that left some voters’ apartment numbers off their ballots.

Others lent the proposal support without qualification.

Henal Patel, of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, argued in-person early voting and electronic poll books would let counties diagnose issues earlier and improve turnout in a way that mail-in voting by itself does not.

“Studies have shown that voters of color, particularly black voters, traditionally distrust voting by mail,” Patel said. “If you saw the early voting numbers in New Jersey, that disparity bears out.”

As of Sunday evening, black voters accounted for just 7% of the state’s returned general election mail-in ballots. Roughly 15% of the state’s residents are black.

Just 6% of returned mail-in ballots came from Hispanic voters, who account for 20% of the state’s population, and only 4% came from Asian voters. One in ten New Jerseyans is Asian.

Spread the news: