Nine election bills advanced through the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee today which would enact a variety of changes concerning mail-in balloting, poll workers, overseas voters, ballot privacy, early voting locations, campaign finance, and police at polling locations.
Six of the nine bills had previously gone through the Assembly, including three from a package spearheaded by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) that aims to reshape many of the state’s antiquated systems of elections administration. Two others, one allowing police back into some polling places and another to amend campaign contribution laws, are brand-new.
The three Coughlin-backed bills included amendments to appease voting rights advocates, who expressed concerns at previous committee hearings that certain provisions could disenfranchise voters. All three bills drew skepticism from Republican legislators, however, and none passed unanimously.
S2865 was advanced in a 3-2 party-line vote, with Republican State Sens. Vince Polistina (R-Egg Harbor) and James Holzapfel (R-Toms River) dissenting. The bill includes a number of provisions, with the most controversial allowing county boards of elections to begin opening absentee ballots five days before Election Day.
Polistina said he was worried about the potential for vote leaks prior to Election Day, something that New Jersey Republicans have expressed repeated concerns about in recent debates over voting legislation.
“These are partisan county chairmen, appointing partisan board of elections representatives, [who] of course are there to protect the parties’ interests,” Polistina said. “Do you believe in your mind that there’s not going to be some leaks of information if we’re opening ballots prior to Election Day?”
Henal Patel of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice echoed Polistina’s concerns about vote leaks, but said that leaks were not displayed to be a problem during the 2020 elections.
“The reality is more and more voters are voting by mail and that is something that election officials are trying to balance out,” said Patel.
The bill received support from the League of Women Voters and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, both of which were skeptical of the bill in its initial form. Originally, the bill required mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day to be received within four days after election day, while the amended version maintains the previous deadline of six days.
Also included in the bill are provisions to shorten the schedule for when absentee ballots are sent to voters and require county boards of elections to post the numbers of ballots received and outstanding on their websites.
Coughlin’s other two bills, S2864 and S2863, received pushback from both Republicans and voter organizations.
S2864 requires that at least 50% of early voting sites and ballot drop boxes be placed in areas with low voter turnout, and at least 50% be placed in areas accessible by public transit. While the organizations shared the bill’s goal of increasing voter turnout, they feared changing voting locations would be confusing to voters.
“Voters like knowing where they’re going to go vote,” said Patel, who cited Hunterdon County as one county that would have to relocate two voting locations.
S2863 also includes a number of provisions, including mandating privacy sleeves at polling places, allowing voters to apply for absentee ballots and change their voter registration online, and, most controversially, requiring the counting of early and absentee votes by electoral district rather than municipality. Voting rights groups and Republicans both expressed concerns over privacy regarding vote reporting, and the bill advanced 4-1 with Polistina voting no.
The bill originally included a section shortening the deadline to cure a ballot, but this was ultimately removed after objections from voting rights groups.
The committee also advanced S2912, which was introduced just today, allowing police officers in public schools and senior residential centers even if they are being used as polling places. As of earlier this year, state law requires officers to remain 100 feet away from all polling places with exceptions when officers lived next to polling sites or were themselves casting a ballot.
Legislators – among them State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence), who sponsored the original polling place legislation – cited recent school shootings for their decision to move forward with the bill.
“This is not a rollback, in my opinion, it’s a carve out,” Turner said in response to criticism of the bill from the League of Women Voters, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and the New Jersey Working Families Party.
A second new bill, S2866 or the so-called “Elections Transparency Act,” would require independent expenditure committees to report campaign contributions of over $1,000 and would double contribution limits. The bill, sponsored by Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Linden) and Senate Minority Leader Steven Oroho (R-Franklin), would also require businesses with legislative, county, or municipal contracts to report any contributions.
The League of Women Voters came out against the bill, pointing out that it may loosen anti-pay-to-play legislation. Previously, businesses could not make contributions to the political party, legislative leadership committee, or to the candidate themselves if they wanted to receive a contract approved by that candidate; now, businesses will only be barred from giving to the candidate themselves, not the party or the leadership committee.
Four other bills also advanced today, with three doing so unanimously.
This bill would allow 16 and 17 year olds to work as poll workers from 5:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. on Election Day itself; current law allows minors to serve as poll workers but restricts their hours.
Currently, New Jersey residents living overseas who either don’t intend to return or are uncertain if they will return to the United States are not permitted to vote in state and local elections despite being able to vote in federal elections. This bill would allow all New Jersey residents living abroad to vote in state elections. The bill advanced by a vote of 4-1 with Holzapfel voting no and Polistina voting yes, but expressing skepticism over the bill.
This bill would require the state to pay for local special elections that were held because of errors by the state.
This bill would allow college students to earn school credit by working as poll workers. While the bill received wide support, Patel proposed that the residency requirement be removed to allow students to work polls in their college’s county rather than the county they are registered in.