Home>Feature>Senate approves early voting, sending measure to Murphy’s desk

State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair). (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Senate approves early voting, sending measure to Murphy’s desk

Governor, an early-voting booster, has signaled he’ll sign the bill

By Nikita Biryukov, March 25 2021 3:06 pm

This article was updated with comment from Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) at 3:49 p.m.

Lawmakers in the Senate approved a bill allowing in-person early voting Thursday, sending the measure to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk, where it’s expected to be signed.

The measure, which cleared the chamber in a 28-8 vote, 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, sponsored by State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair) and Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick), represent significant reductions from previous versions, which provided for a two-week early voting period but limited the practice to general elections and municipal elections in towns that passed an ordinance to approve early voting.

Murphy, long a proponent of early voting, has signaled he would support the bill, even if it fell short of the 30-day period he proposed in July.

“Without getting into the specifics of early voting, and I mean this not facetiously — I’ll take anything,” he said last month.

With primaries less than three months away, early voting won’t be in place in time for June races, and it’s not clear whether it’ll be ready by November either.

Also unclear is how the state will address startup costs associated with early voting. The practice requires electronic poll books that would allow election officials to mark an individual as having voted — by mail or at an early polling place — preventing them from voting a second time and eliminating the need to rely on paper provisional ballots, as the state did during last year’s mostly-mail elections.

Murphy’s proposed budget included $20 million for electronic poll books and other startup costs, though that money is likely to fall far short of what’s needed. Election officials say the figure is closer to $80 million, as they’ll also have to purchase voting machines that can interface with electronic poll books.

But Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) said counties shouldn’t expect the state to pick up the tab for everything.

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

The bill itself includes a $2 million appropriation for high-speed printers that can make ballots for a given municipality, down to the district, in real time, but the final appropriation for early voting has remained murky for months.

Lawmakers appear to be working off a fiscal estimate drafted several years ago that pegged the cost of electronic poll books and overtime at about $25 million, with $1 million annually going to overtime costs, but there’s still little clarity about the final figure.

“We’ve got to find out what the number is,” Sweeney said of the appropriation after the bill’s passage.

Sweeney has sought to enact early voting since at least 2015, seeking a 15-day period. He wasn’t thrilled at the contracted voting periods, though he still saw it as an improvement.

“It’s like anything that we do around here,” he said. “I think it’s good. It’s an advancement of what we had.”

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