Patchwork election laws both old and new cause confusion

JEFF PILLETS | NOVEMBER 17, 2021 

NJ Spotlight News

Nov. 3, 2021: Board workers Bernadette Witt, left, and JoAnn Bartlett process and double-check mail-in ballots for Bergen County in Hackensack.

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Overworked county election offices found they had no choice this week but to blow past a state-imposed deadline of Nov. 15 to audit the vote totals in this year’s election.

Meeting the deadline would have forced counties to violate other existing laws and policies that require all voting machines to be locked and impounded for two full weeks after Election Day in case candidates ask for an official recount.

If you’re confused, so is your local election worker.

Officials at county election boards across the state say the series of changes that have transformed the way New Jersey votes in the past two years have forced them to do their job on the run, amid a welter of conflicting laws and outdated policies, not to mention technological challenges.

“New policies and new executive orders keep coming at us from all directions but nobody’s checking if everything works together,” said Evelyn Caterson, a member of the Board of Elections in Atlantic County. “We’re left to somehow make it all work out.”

Voting early, in-person, for the first time

This year, for instance, local officials had to work through the mechanics of running the state’s first ever election with early in-person voting. The new system required the creation of multiple voting centers in every county, complete with a system of electronic poll books that replaced traditional voting rolls.

Last year, as the pandemic kicked into high gear, the same officials engineered the state’s first mostly by-mail elections, amid continuing technical issues with the state’s central registration computers — as well as resistance from many voters who balked at the switch to mail-in ballots.

All the changes were authorized by a series of new state laws. In some cases, officials point out, new statutes and orders were put in place without formally ending or amending the old laws.

“That’s how we got into this situation,” said Rich Ambrosino, an election board official in Camden County. “Now the Legislature has to go back and carefully review all the new mandates and requirements and make sure everything works together.”

On Friday, election officials from all 21 counties asked the state Superior Court to extend the audit deadline, a request backed up by the state Division of Elections. The court subsequently agreed and counties now have until Nov. 24 to complete the vote check, which requires workers to randomly select 2% of paper ballots cast and inspect them by hand.

Confusing mix of mandates

Legal papers filed by the counties give insight into the confusing series of electoral mandates that have been passed down from Trenton in recent years. The mandates show why counting the votes seems to take more time every year.

In a legal brief, counties cite a 2020 law that requires board workers to wait six days after the polls close before counting any mail-in ballots postmarked on or before Election Day.

In another twist, a voter’s provisional ballot “cannot be investigated until it is known whether that voter has cast a mail-in ballot,” according to the brief. “This new requirement has added to the difficulty to conduct an audit of voting prior to the … deadline.”

In conceding his loss in the New Jersey gubernatorial election last week, Republican Jack Ciattarelli joined growing bipartisan calls for the state to standardize the process of tallying and reporting votes to give the public greater clarity and confidence in the results.

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

This year’s audit, if it took place as scheduled by Nov. 15, would have been the first based primarily on a paper trail produced by voting machines — a happy event for voting security experts who have for years urged New Jersey switch to a system backed by paper records.

New Jersey law calls for routine audits of paper voting records. For decades, however, New Jersey lagged behind most of the nation by using voting machines that did not produce a paper backup. Many counties still use voting machines, more than 15 years old in some cases, that leave no such paper trail. Security experts have shown how paperless machines are easily hacked and open to fraud.

With the advent of electronic poll books, which are found in every county, all early votes generate a paper receipt. The poll books proved a success with voters, officials said.

“Anyone who used them seemed to really like them,” said Caterson, the election official in Atlantic County.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-11-17 03:29:13 -0800