Ciattarelli leads calls for statewide voting reform

COLLEEN O'DEA, SENIOR WRITER AND PROJECTS EDITOR | NOVEMBER 15, 2021 

NJ Spotlight News

Nov. 3, 2021: Board worker Ann Carlette, left, processes and double-checks mail-in ballots for Bergen County in Hackensack.

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In conceding the New Jersey gubernatorial election last Friday, Republican Jack Ciattarelli joined the call for the state to standardize the process of tallying and reporting votes to give the public greater clarity and confidence in the results.

And while Ciattarelli may have lost the race, lawmakers — including some Democrats — very well may heed his call in the next legislative session.

Because of the continuing slow count of votes from the Nov. 2 general election, at least some legislators, as well as political observers and even some county officials, are supporting the call for greater uniformity in the state’s election results process, which currently gives each county latitude, provided the counties meet statutory deadlines. Gov. Phil Murphy declared victory the day after the election, but Ciattarelli waited to concede because of uncertainty over how many votes remained uncounted and whether they would give him a chance in a recount.

It was still impossible to know how many ballots remained outstanding as of Friday night. Two state assembly seats — in Monmouth County’s 11th District — remained too close to call.

Vote tally delays, confusion

County officials point out that the state’s deadlines for counting late-arriving mail-in ballots delay their ability to tally provisional ballots, and the deadline for voters to rectify any problems with paper ballots makes their counting take even longer. There was confusion on election night over which counties had included early votes and mail-in ballots in their tallies when Republicans — including Ciattarelli — appeared to be winning a number of seats they ultimately lost.

Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex), who became the first Democrat to win the Senate seat in the 16th District, said what looked like a loss initially was due to officials in multiple counties — his district spans four — not posting mail-in ballot tallies until the day after the election. He promised to work with county election officials on a legislative solution to the confusion.

“In the end, much of it was about how the results got reported out,” Zwicker said. “That should not have happened … There’s no uniformity. You don’t know what you’re looking at.”

There will be several challenges in trying to standardize tallying and reporting results. For one, larger counties receive more mail-in ballots, which take longer to process. For another, election duties are spread through multiple county offices: State law has boards of election counting ballots and county clerks posting results, and some counties also have an elections superintendent who conducts the election. Even more challenging is the fact that counties use several types of machines for voting, processing paper ballots and reporting results, so standards may be difficult to achieve.

‘21 counties… 21 different ways’

The problem comes down to “21 counties handling elections 21 different ways,” said Stephanie Salvatore, superintendent of elections in Gloucester County. “It has gotten better in the last few years, and with the addition of a Statewide Voter Registration System, but in my professional opinion, there is still much room for improving the process.”

And improving it is important, Ciattarelli said, to give voters and the public confidence in the integrity of the system.

“Sadly, in our current climate, that slow count, and constantly changing online numbers, give rise to doubt in the system and unfounded conspiracy theories,” he said Friday, adding that he saw no proof of “systemic widespread fraud” despite contentions of it on social media. “That isn’t healthy,” he said. “The fact that we are 10 days past the election, and votes are still being counted is a problem for every close election to come. Voters do deserve better.

“We desperately need uniformity and strict reporting guidelines,” Ciattarelli said. “Doing so would bring order to, and most importantly, renew faith in our system.”

Where the counting stands

A check of the 21 county-election reporting pages midday Friday found three — Hunterdon, Salem and Sussex — that appeared to have completed their counts, except for any ballot “cure” letters seeking to rectify a mistake with a mail-in or provisional ballot that could be submitted as late as Saturday. A majority of the sites let people know whether mail-in and provisional ballots had been counted, though some of these had not been updated for more than a week. On eight county sites, there was no easy way to know where the counts stood. One county, Cumberland, took down its unofficial results due to errors in the way the computer system was reporting them.

“They don’t have a fix for it,” said Celeste Riley, Cumberland County clerk, explaining that all of the votes not cast on machines on Election Day were showing up in the wrong place. “It’s something they didn’t know about.”

There is obviously public pressure — from local candidates anxious to know whether they have won, as well as statewide candidates — to get clear and timely results. But currently, the only rules for county officials require that county boards of canvassers meet by Nov. 15 to certify results and then to send them to the secretary of state by Nov. 20.

Riley said the Legislature could mandate rules for when and how counties report results if all the counties used the same equipment, “but we didn’t do that.” She said that if officials were allowed to process mail-in ballots early — as they did last year — while not reporting results until after the close of polls, that would help. Roughly 550,000 voters used mail-in ballots, according to an NJ Spotlight News analysis of the state’s vote-by-mail database.

“Then the boards of elections could concentrate on all the other issues that occur on Election Day,” she said.

Election Day was ‘a perfect storm’

Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said he expects election reporting reforms. He called the prohibition on processing mail-in ballots early this year at the same time officials were dealing with new equipment and early, in-person voting for the first time “a perfect storm of throwing too much at the counties at once” and a good explanation for why the counting is taking so long.

“There’s a tremendous amount of consensus, after what the state has just been through,” he said. “If there’s been a slower count in modern New Jersey elections, I don’t know it. Nothing really even comes close. To be counting non-provisional ballots ten days later is unprecedented.”

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said it is time for New Jersey to mandate a statewide voting system and fully fund it. Currently, the state pays some election costs, but the counties cover the rest.

“Certainly, the county offices are just stretched way too thin,” he said. “They don’t have the technology or the staff.”

An official with Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign also called for reporting changes last week before the race was called, when the campaign was struggling to try to figure out which votes had been counted in which counties.

Election night results, a thing of the past?

County officials welcome more state support, but some said candidates and the public need to realize getting full results on election night is a thing of the past. The important thing is that counties meet statutory deadlines.

“In essence it does not make a difference if I know that I am elected County Clerk on 11/2 or 11/20,” said Hunterdon County Clerk Mary Melfi in an email. “I don’t take office until January 1st. Do I want to the results on 11/2 — yes. Do I have to know the results on 11/2 — no.”

Nicole DiRado, superintendent of elections in Union County, said the best way to fight conspiracy theories or rumors of fraud is public education about how the process works. People concerned about what they think are irregularities should just ask for an explanation, she said.

“Instead of jumping to conclusions, people just need to ask the question,” DiRado said. “Our jobs are to run fair and transparent elections regardless of party and we are outside of the fray … We have nothing to hide. All anybody has to do is ask the question, instead of jumping to a conspiracy.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-11-15 03:37:08 -0800