GILL-WHELAN LEGISLATION TO ESTABLISH STATEWIDE EARLY VOTING CLEARS SENATE

Would Allow In-Person Voting At Designated Polling Locations Up To 15 Days Prior To Election

 TRENTONLegislation sponsored by Senator Nia H. Gill and Senator Jim Whelan to establish early voting in New Jersey was approved today by the full Senate. The Legislation would permit voters to cast ballots in person at designated polling locations as early as 15 days prior to an election.

“The problems we saw in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy highlighted the vulnerabilities within our voting system and underscored the need to improve the process. The reality is that these are problems that will only recur during the next emergency if we do not improve the current process,” said Senator Gill (D-Essex/Passaic). “Just as many states already have, it is time to modernize our election system. Establishing early voting will create a more accessible, secure and reliable voting process that will ensure access to the polls and the integrity of the vote.”

“The emergency voting measures put in place following Sandy caused a great deal of confusion. In many towns and cities, polling places were relocated and residents were left to navigate a hastily implemented system that included voting by email and fax,” said Whelan (D-Atlantic). “It is critical that we create a more predictable process for the electorate. Early voting will do that by allowing in-person voting at the polls 15 days before Election Day, including on weekends.”

The bill (S-536) would establish an early voting procedure to allow voters to cast their ballots at designated polling places starting 15 days before the primary election and the General Election, and ending on the Sunday before the election. A municipality holding elections on the second Tuesday in May, by an ordinance adopted by its governing body could also conduct early voting for municipal elections. Each county board of elections would be responsible for creating and carrying out a written plan to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, the integrity of the voting process including the security of the ballots.

Early voting would enable a registered voter to vote at a designated polling place by paper ballot. Polling places would be open to voters seven days a week, with uniform voting hours statewide – 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Each county would be required to have at least three early voting locations, however, counties with at least 150,000 but less than 300,000 would be required to have five public locations for early voting; those with 300,000 or more registered voters would be required to have seven polling locations for early voting.  The bill also would require that early voting sites be geographically located to ensure access by voters.

A report issued in October by the Constitutional Rights Clinic at Rutgers School of Law in Newark found that post-Sandy emergency voting measures, which included voting by email and fax, were illegal, insecure and confusing. In addition, it overwhelmed employees and the system set up to process the applications. In EssexCounty alone, 1,500 applications for ballots remained unprocessed after Election Day, the report found. In HudsonCounty, eight staff members worked to process 3,000 ballot applications (not even actual ballots) on Election Day itself. The Senators said the problems exposed by the report demonstrate the critical need for early voting. This bill is the second legislative effort in recent years to establish an early voting process. A similar bill passed both houses of the Legislature last session but was vetoed by the governor. This bill, however, does not include early voting for primary elections. Early voting has also been backed by President Obama and The Presidential Commission on Election Administration, a panel he commissioned, has recommended the expansion of early voting to improve access to the polls.

“Our goal must be to make it as convenient as possible for residents to vote. Failing to implement a more secure and accessible process will continue to disenfranchise voters who have a right to participate in the Election process,” said Senator Whelan. “Early voting will expand in-person voting beyond the traditional one-day time frame. It will allow access to the polls beginning 15 days before the election and provide residents an opportunity to vote when it is most convenient for them. In a modern-day society, this just makes sense.”

“There are few rights more important than a citizen’s ability to vote, so creating a secure and reliable system that ensures that our residents have access to the polls must be a priority,” said Senator Gill (D-Essex/Passaic).  “This is a common sense measure that will substantially improve our laws. At the same time, the revisions we made, to include general elections but not primaries in early voting, will curb the expected cost of the program. Given the insecurity of our current system, we cannot delay the implementation of early voting any longer. New Jersey must move its voting system into the 21st Century, and this bill is the most effective way to do that. It will expand opportunities for people to participate in the process and exercise their most fundamental constitutional right.”

The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 21-15. It next heads to the General Assembly.