Did the new electoral law cause delays in voting reports in the Murphy-Ciattarelli race? Yes, say the experts.

Whether voters voted in person early or on election day, they had to contend with new technologies, including electronic voting tablets instead of voter registration records. In some cases, voters also voted on new electronic voting machines. And behind the scenes, election officials faced a plethora of changes in the way they conducted elections.

All of this combined, according to experts and state election officials, created a situation in which voters and candidates went to bed on Tuesday without knowing who won, including the two candidates vying for the governorship.

Experts and officials said many of the delays in get election results stems from a law that was passed earlier this year, adding early voting, changing when postal votes could be counted, and upgrading technology that essentially changed the voting system from 2020.

And because there are no streamlined statewide rules regarding the order in which advance votes, Election Day ballots, and mail-in ballots must be marked on each. of the 21 county websites, it was difficult to search statewide for comparable data in a timely manner at best.

“Voters had more options than ever to participate in elections and that meant more work for counties,” said Alicia D’Alessandro, spokeswoman for the state’s Elections Division. And, she said, counties have set some of their own policies while implementing the state’s election law.

It all started with the invoice.

HOW THIS ELECTION WAS DIFFERENT

The State Senate Bill S323 – allowing for the first time advance voting in person – was promulgated on March 30 and entered into force the next day.

The law made the use of electronic voting books or tablets mandatory, giving county clerks only five months to implement them and train workers in their use. The law also prohibited county clerks from adding up the first ballots in person and by mail until November 2, polling day.

County officials warned at the time that the law did not leave enough time for clerks to implement the changes.

Prior to the passage of the law, John Donnadio, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Counties (NJAC), recommended enacting the law as a pilot program in a consenting county or during an election year “where the office governor and the 120 seats in the state legislature was not at stake. Others suggested deploying it in a primary instead of a general election.

“Our county clerks and board of directors faced significant challenges in implementing in-person advance voting in such a short timeframe,” said Donnadio, noting that election officials “worked incredibly hard and are committed to ensuring that the election runs smoothly, given the circumstances. “

And as with any deployment of new equipment, technical issues and user errors plagued some polling stations, including Paterson, Bernardsville, Raritan and Hillsborough. Hunterdon County officials said two tablets needed to be restarted. In other places, poll workers operated tablets on a limited battery and were instructed to plug them in.

In one case, a poll worker forgot to turn on the Wi-Fi router, which meant signature tablets could not use the internet to verify voter data, officials said.

The technical issues were not a “big statewide crisis,” D’Alessandro said. “A small number of polling stations were affected.

But the new counting procedures have also delayed things. In 2020, county clerks could count mail-in ballots before election day, said Micah Rasmussen, executive director of the Rebovitch Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

This year, “the early (in-person) voting program was a new process, entirely different from last year,” Rasmussen said. “The counties had to find out.

This learning curve has caused delays, he said.

More than half a dozen counties had not counted in-person elections every day results Wednesday morning. Union County officials stopped counting at 11:23 p.m. Tuesday. Passaic County had only had less than three-quarters of the vote by the end of the night. In other places, the counting of the ballots took place in the early morning of November 3 until all districts were counted, the clerks said.

INCONSISTENT REPORTING METHOD

Although all counties follow certain procedures, such as opening and closing polling stations and when they can count postal votes, they have some latitude in the order in which they report the polls. results of advance polls, election day ballots and mail-in ballots on their websites.

“Rather than having a statewide entity responsible for setting all the rules, we have 21,” said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “I’m sure there are people out there who can defend doing this. I am not one of them.

Hunterdon County, for example, reported its mail-in ballots that were received on election day immediately after the polls closed, ahead of the precinct’s reports of in-person voting, Mary Melfi said. , Hunterdon County Clerk.

But, we didn’t vote early until the next morning, she said. “If you looked at the results at night and your candidate won the next morning, it might have been different with early voting. “

Other counties began their reporting with in-person votes on election day, while others did not get there until Wednesday.

A uniform process would make reporting more consistent, said Ariel Alvarez, associate professor of political science and law at Montclair State University. But, he said, that’s not the only problem.

“It is the fact that they are still counting the votes and that they will not be able to report all the counting until they have obtained the votes,” he said, noting that the postal votes will continue to arrive. until November 8.

Each county’s voting population, number of employees, and budget all explain why each county’s reporting process is not consistent.

“If you were to try to do one size fits all at the state level, it wouldn’t work well because of the diversity of the counties,” said Matthew Hale, associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Seton Hall. University. He said what works in one county may not work in another.

Sometimes the differences have spawned online conspiracy theories.

A social media post about Bergen County alleged that something fishy was going on because it showed 100% of the precinct was shortly after midnight on Tuesday, and Ciattarelli had 52% versus 47% for Murphy. But by 7:30 a.m. the numbers had changed, placing Murphy at 52% and Ciattarelli at 48%.

“As expected, theft is on! The poster wrote. “40,000 more votes. “

But more than 41,000 postal votes were not yet included in the count for election night. They were counted by the Election Council, not the clerk, and published in a separate report. You had to add the counts from the two reports to get the true result.

As for the confusion over how the county reported that 100% of the ridings were in but the vote count continued to increase? It is the same for each county.

“The 100% means all wards have been flagged, but that doesn’t necessarily mean all votes for that ward have been flagged,” said Melfi, the clerk of Hunterdon. “There would still be an outstanding postal vote or pending provisional votes.”

ELECTION NJ 2021: Local and state results

Steve Chong, Bergen’s deputy clerk, apologized for the confusion and said his technicians were working on creating a web page that would combine machine tally with mailings.

The layout of the website also caused confusion in Hudson County. Its website first reported early votes and then added election day votes to its totals. He also put a separate pdf file on his website with a breakdown of the early voting. Some people, not realizing early voting was already included in the total, added early voting a second time, leading some on social media to claim a plot to double-count early votes.

The allegation elicited a firm response from the county clerk.

“Any information from third parties who have suggested or implied that the numbers were double-counted or not counted at all is categorically false,” Hudson County Clerk E. Junior Maldonado said in a statement.

Maldonado told NJ Advance Media he wasn’t sure why some people were reporting incorrect numbers because the website was accurate all the time, and he noted that people may have misread it.

“Disclosure of inaccurate information leads to misinformation and the conspiracy theories that accompany it,” he said.

IMPROVE THE PROCESS

In the absence of a consistent vote counting or display process, readers of county websites should check the fine print to make sure they understand what the vote tally represents, experts said. in matters of elections.

“If there was consistency in how (the data) was presented, it would definitely make it easier,” Hale said.

Rasmussen said two changes are needed to avoid a repeat of the delays.

“I would make two changes: give counties some time to count mail-in ballots and try out new equipment during the primary,” Rasmussen said.

County officials plan to seek changes to the law.

“Once the elections are over and they will have a minute to come together, we will meet with our election officials to discuss how to improve the electoral process and make recommendations to both the Elections Division and the Legislature. state, ”Donnadio said.

Ultimately, the decision in law to use new technology for the first time in a general election for governor was a mistake, Rasmussen said.

“It was a lot of technology. Next to the presidential election, the governor’s election gets the highest turnout and has the highest stakes, ”said Rasmussen. “Now might not be the time to try new gear.”

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Journalist NJ Advance Media Richard cowen contributed to this report.

Karin Price Mueller can be contacted at KPriceMueller@njadvancemedia.com.

Larry Higgs can be reached at lhiggs@njadvancemedia.com.


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