New machines, new times to vote. Major changes for New Jersey voters this November

National Guardsman Tim Rzemyk helps out at a polling place

National Guardsman Tim Rzemyk helps out at a polling place in Camden during the New Jersey primary election. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

With just five weeks until New Jersey’s general election, county officials who have had to adapt to a host of changes since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic are preparing for yet another new balloting method: early voting.

Next month, the state will open its first true statewide early voting period, with voters able to cast ballots in person on machines. Six months ago, Gov. Phil Murphy enacted a law mandating this system, which requires between three and 10 polling locations open daily in each county, depending on its population. Those polling stations must be up and running from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays from Oct. 23 through Oct. 31.

This will give voters another alternative to going to the polls on Election Day. New Jerseyans already have grown increasingly more comfortable with voting by mail; almost three in 10 voters in the June primary used a mail-in ballot. Most mail-in ballots for this year’s election have gone out to voters who automatically get a ballot each year or those who have requested one.

The governor’s race tops the ticket this year, with Murphy, a first-term Democrat, facing Republican Jack Ciattarelli, a former Assemblyman, and three independents. All 120 seats in the Legislature are also up for grabs, as are county and local seats. Voters are also being asked to decide statewide ballot questions related to sports betting and the use of raffle proceeds.

Information about all the state races is available on NJ Spotlight News’ elections page.

Making voting more convenient

Supporters say early voting will make it easier for more people to participate in democracy. Some people can’t get away from work on a given Tuesday but also don’t trust dropping a ballot in the mail or a ballot box. Opening the polls for nine days, including on weekends, will make voting more convenient.

“We are hoping that goes well and everything will run as smoothly as possible during early voting and Election Day,” said Henal Patel of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, one of the groups that advocated for early voting. “We will be keeping an eye on things.”

While new to New Jersey, early voting happens in 24 other states. Still, it’s unexplored territory here, given lawmakers decided to mandate early polls open throughout the state from the start, rather than piloting an early voting system in a few counties.

“Given all the newness and unknowns, things are going well in Atlantic County,” said Evelynn Caterson, who chairs the county board of elections. She said some voters have questions, but that has become the norm, given “all the voting changes in the past two years.”

County clerks and election officials adapted over the last 18 months, in large part due to the pandemic, by hosting a delayed primary, mailing paper ballots to most registrants, installing and checking ballot drop boxes, reduced or changed polling locations, and alerting mail-in voters to correct mistakes that would invalidate their ballots. This fall, election officials have a whole new voting system to implement in a relatively short time.

Millions spent on new voting machines

All counties have had to buy new voting equipment — including ballot printers, machines and electronic poll books — and are now setting them up and starting to train poll workers how to use them. An estimate from the New Jersey Association of Counties put the additional cost of this first year of early voting at $83 million. Most counties have also designated their early polling locations. The state Division of Elections has a list of these that it updates as it receives them.

“We are currently working with the state and adopting standards for the early voting and we are well on our way to finishing our preparations,” said Beth Thompson, administrator of the Hunterdon County Board of Elections. “We have all our new equipment for early voting … We are utilizing a county building to train our poll workers. We have 17 training sessions set up.”

It won’t just be poll workers who need to learn how to use the new machines. Voters will need to as well. Most counties still use paperless machines where a person votes by pushing a touch screen or buttons. But the machines in early voting locations will use paper ballots printed on demand to allow a person from any town in a county to vote in any early location. They will also use ballot scanners likely to be unfamiliar to many voters. And prospective voters will have to sign an electronic poll book, rather than a paper one, to prevent a person from voting in one location and then voting again at another site or on another day.

There are other uncertainties about early voting, perhaps the most important of which is whether counties will have enough people to work at all the early polling locations. Some county officials reported having difficulty finding enough workers for the single-day primary in June. This fall, they will need people to work 10 days, including the early voting days. As a result of the looming shortage in June, lawmakers passed and Murphy signed a law doubling the daily pay for poll workers to $400, but only for that election. At the end of June, the Senate passed a bill (S-598) making that raise permanent, but the Assembly did not act on it before recessing until after the upcoming election. That means poll workers this fall should expect to earn $200 for Election Day and a little less — $14.29 per hour — for early voting days.

Questions about election workers, new processes

Thompson said that Hunterdon County needs to fill another 200 slots for Election Day.

Caterson said Atlantic County’s poll-worker recruitment went well and the county is training as many as 40 each during more than 20 sessions that already have begun.

She is concerned about confusion once early voting begins, particularly by those who received a mail-in ballot but decide they want to vote in person. They will have to fill out a provisional ballot at the polls “because the e-poll book will say” they received their mail-in ballot.

Registered voters will be able to vote during any of the early days at any site within their county or at their regular polling location on Election Day, Nov. 2. They can also request a mail-in ballot and return it by mail or place it in a drop box by 8 p.m. on Nov. 2.

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