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New Jersey's Voting Future?

The following opinion piece was written by Essex County Clerk Christopher J. Durkin.


Imagine an Election Day with no polling sites, no poll workers and no voting machines.

Imagine doing away with our traditional pilgrimage to that school or fire house or church to register our decision on a presidential election, mayoral election, or maybe even a ballot question; or an election where every vote is cast before Election Day by mail-in voting.

It may be hard to picture in New Jersey but that is how elections are conducted in states around the country.

The people of Oregon decided by ballot initiative in 1998 to make the change to all "Vote by Mail" elections while the Washington State Legislature passed a law instructing every county to conduct only "Vote by Mail" elections in 2011. In Oregon, the counties have designated locations where mail boxes have been installed to only accept "Vote by Mail" return ballots.

In Colorado more than 70% of people casting ballots do it by mail and in California more than 56% of the voters consistently vote by mail.

In New Jersey, we don't like to pump our own gas but we love to push that button on a voting machine on Election Day. Only 8% of New Jerseyans opt to vote by mail.

In 2005, New Jersey scrapped "Absentee Voting," an outdated system whereby the voter needed to offer a defined excuse to the county clerk's office in order to be granted a paper ballot prior to Election Day. In 2009, New Jersey became the 30th state to pass a "Vote by Mail" law which allows all registered voters to vote by mail without an excuse.

But the state has only seen a slight increase in voting by mail since the new law was instituted. It seems New Jerseyans still show a strong commitment to that communal meeting at that electronic voting machine to publicly proclaim our private vote.

In the presidential races of 2004 and 2008 I watched news reports of eager voters on lines that snaked out of the school house and into the parking lots in the states of Ohio and Florida, where voters waited more than 3 hours to cast their vote.

Most states have regionalized voting districts where thousands of voters travel to the same polling location to vote, making for long lines and weary legs.

New Jersey is not burdened with long lines at our polling sites. Most people know that New Jersey has 566 municipalities, but did you know that we have 6,509 voting districts with an average of 775 voters per district?

With some of those voters being inactive and then some more voting by mail, the rest of the electorate has 14 hours on Election Day to cast their vote making for a 10 minute trip to your polling location to perform your civic duty.

New Jersey moved its presidential primary in 2008 from June to "Super Tuesday" in February in order to become more of a "player" in national politics. We wanted the presidential campaigns to build relationships with our citizenry and recruit New Jersey's best and brightest into federal government; not just take our money.

In that election, some voters experienced "vote by mail regret" when presidential candidates were dropping out of the race after voters had already mailed back their choice.

Campaigns can be intense, and sometimes information is gained by the voter the closer you are to Election Day for a more informed decision. Therefore, I am in favor of how New Jersey currently conducts its elections.

Recently there has been a concerted effort by some states to use only paper ballots counted by hand or optical scanners as opposed to electronic machines on Election Day. The counting of paper ballots has been proven to be less accurate than the electronic voting machines but more trusted by the public.

I believe that each state and its people are uniquely experienced and qualified to make decisions on its voting future.

What do you think?

Christopher J. Durkin is the Essex County Clerk.

Adam Kraemer July 19, 2012 at 10:46 AM
I have concerns that additonal voting by mail might agrivate the issue of voter fraud. Not that long ago an Essex County Freeholder pleaded no contest to frauduantly puting in absentee ballots for his spouse who went on to be an NJ State Senator. So yes this a reall promlem. What ever way we end up voting the process must be made so we know that each vote is a true an accurate vote.
Jerry Soffer July 19, 2012 at 11:40 AM
Though I prefer the pilgrimage to the communal meeting (I'm retired, so I go at my liesure), I can understand how mail-in ballots would be more convenient for many. However, I'm not sure how mail-in ballots would weaken outside influences, or what, specifically, you mean by outside influences. Would you expound on that? This is an issue that warrants serious discussion, and Patch is an ideal forum. If you would, please address Adam Kraemer's comment about voter fraud.
Alan Sanders July 19, 2012 at 12:23 PM
I kind of like the ritual and I have time in my day to vote without rushing but I remember when scrambling to vote before or after work was a hassle. So why don't more people vote by mail? I think they would if it was marketed more effectively. That electronic voting is more reliable is certainly plausible but if you believe all that was written about programming companies being able to subvert elections then it makes you wonder if electronic voting is more susceptible to fraud in a high level, closely contested election like we might have this November in some swing states.
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