N.J. has expanded voting rights. But it still hasn’t taken steps to protect elections from claims of fraud.

Published: Sep. 15, 2022

A voter signs in electronically at the polling place at the St. Thomas Greek Orthodox Church in Cherry Hill in November 2021.

As several states made it harder to vote, New Jersey made it easier.

The Garden State expanded early voting. It required drop boxes to be better spread out throughout counties. And it banned law enforcement officers from polling places, unless they were there to cast a ballot or responding to an emergency, to avoid any voter intimidation.

But New Jersey remains one of the few states that does not require paper trails that allow election officials to conduct recounts and ensure that voting machines were not hacked and the results not tampered with. They can also be used to rebut false claims of election fraud.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the state expanded vote by mail and early in-person voting. Those changes became permanent even as Election Day polling places reopened.

“New Jersey is at top of the list” among states that expanded voting rights, said Adam Smith, director of the advocacy arm of End Citizens United/Let America Vote.

“They make it easy to register to vote,” Smith said. “They have lots of options: You can vote absentee/no excuse, you can vote early, you can vote on Election Day. They make it easy and convenient.”

New Jersey was one of 17 states that voted to expand voting in 2021, while 11 states voted to restrict it, according to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. Another eight states expanded some rights and curtailed others.

This year, 15 states expanded access and five restricted it, according to Voting Rights Lab.

“We’ve really realized an onslaught of election legislation,” said Liz Avore, a senior adviser at Voting Rights Lab.

Most of the states making it easier to vote are Democratic-run, while Republican-led states are the ones shrinking voting rights.

This follows an election in which former President Donald Trump falsely claimed voter fraud, a majority of House Republicans voted to reject state-certified electoral votes, and supporters of the former president stormed the Capitol Jan. 6 in a failed attempt to stop the congressional counting that would make Joe Biden the next U.S. president.

“One of the things to keep in mind is we have increasingly a state of affairs where a voter’s ability to cast a ballot depends on where they happen to reside,” said Jasleen Singh, counsel in the Brennan Center’s democracy program.

The ban on police officers at polling places and keeping drop boxes at least 100 feet from a police station harkens back to the 1981 New Jersey gubernatorial election, narrowly won by Tom Kean, in which the Republicans reportedly targeted heavily minority communities that tend to support Democratic candidates.

During the campaign, voters in minority communities were met at the polls with signs reading, “This area is being patrolled by the National Ballot Security Task Force,” and by off-duty police officers and deputy sheriffs hired by the GOP.

To settle a voter intimidation lawsuit, the Republican National Committee agreed not to undertake “ballot security activities” in minority communities “where a purpose or significant effect of such activities is to deter qualified voters from voting.” That consent decree remained in effect for 35 years.

Sylvia Albert, who runs the voting and elections program at Common Cause, said the provision was designed to ensure that voters won’t face intimidation at the polls.

“It’s saying to voters, ‘We’ve got your back and we are going to protect you and you’re not going to be intimated when you show up to vote,’” Albert said.

Where New Jersey continues to lag behind is in requiring all voting machines to have paper trails, so the state or a municipality can audit results to make sure the voters were recorded accurately and the machines were not hacked.

Paper trails were used to rebut false claims by Trump and his Republican allies that the 2020 election was stolen. They allowed election officials in disputed states to disprove evidence-free charges that ballots were cast illegally, machines were programmed to switch votes from one candidate to another, and systems were hacked.

“It is definitely helpful to squash those lies,” Albert said. “Everybody watched Georgia count every ballot by hand three times. It really takes the wind out the sails. If you can hold a ballot in your hand and see how it was voted, it helps people recognize the stability of the system.”

That’s not easy to do in New Jersey. It remains one of just six states that do not require a paper trail that allows election officials to check that voting machines were not hacked and the results not tampered with.

Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee are aiming for full paper trails by 2024 and Texas by 2026, according to Verified Voting, a national nonprofit election verification organization.

New Jersey is making some progress, but not enough, said Mark Lindeman, a director of Verified Voting.

The percentage of Garden State voters able to cast ballots on machines with paper trails has increased to 60.7% this year from 28.2% in 2020, according to Verified Voting, a national nonprofit election verification organization.

New Jersey needs an estimated $60 million to $80 million to replace county voting machines with ones that create paper trails for proper audits of votes cast but the state can’t mandate new equipment unless it pays for it. The state Council on Local Mandates reviews laws to make sure that the state can’t require such spending unless it comes up with the money.

“Practically every other state is on a path to require some kind of paper trail for every voter,” Lindeman said. “As far as solving the problem statewide, New Jersey is getting further and further behind.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a project called Democracy Day, in which newsrooms across the country are shining a light on threats to democracy and what action is needed to protect it.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-09-16 02:49:26 -0700