Election officials in Atlantic County are considering a possible test of early voting equipment when Buena Vista Township and Buena Borough hold board of education and fire district elections later this month.
The Atlantic County Board of Elections and county Superintendent of Elections Maureen Bugdon discussed the possibility at a board meeting Tuesday night, when the board voted 3-1 to pursue the idea.
A pilot program would be a way to prepare and learn about the new equipment for when state law mandates 10 days of early voting come the November general election, Board of Elections Chair Lynn Caterson said Wednesday.
“It’s a test drive,” said Caterson. “Do they manufacture a car and never drive it until you sell it to somebody? You have to actually do it.”
It also would help simplify offering eight different fire district ballots and a school board ballot to Buena Vista and Buena voters, she said.
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The voting would still take place on one day, April 20, but the equipment used would be electronic poll books, a new voting machine that can pull up any ballot in the municipalities involved, and a special printer to create punch cards voters will insert in the machines to pull up their own ballots.
“If everything can fall in place, every voter in Buena Vista Township and Buena Borough who wants to vote in person can go to this one site (at Buena Regional High School),” Caterson said.
Usually the two types of elections are held on different dates, but Gov. Phil Murphy ordered that they both — along with any municipal special elections — be held April 20 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bugdon said at the meeting that a pilot program is only possible because of the cooperation of the Atlantic County Clerk’s Office, the Board of Elections and her office.
Among other things, the superintendent’s office is responsible for voter registration and security of voting machines. The clerk’s office prints and distributes ballots, and the elections board trains poll workers and counts all vote-by-mail and provisional ballots.
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Bugdon would have regular poll books and eight voting machines on hand if the new equipment has problems, Caterson said.
But there are still many details to be worked out before election officials can say they will definitely proceed with the proposed pilot program.
“Not the least of which is getting an electronic poll book ready based on the State Voter Registration System,” said Caterson. The SVRS has been criticized by elections officials around the state for having mistakes and being difficult to use.
Misinformation from the SVRS contributed to the wrong ballots being sent to some voters in Hamilton Township. Now, one candidate for District 3 county commissioner has appealed a Superior Court judge’s decision ordering a special election.
Bugdon did not say whether the new equipment will be purchased, leased or on loan. On Wednesday, she said she will wait to see whether the pilot program will proceed before commenting further.
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The governor recently signed a bill requiring election officials to provide 10 days of early voting in the November election to allow voters to vote in person without waiting in long lines as a precaution against spreading COVID-19.
The November 2020 election was conducted mostly by mail, and many voters complained they would have preferred voting in person by machine. Counting more than 140,000 paper ballots, as the elections board did last year, is also time consuming and expensive, as dozens of temporary staff members must be hired.
Caterson said the clerk’s office is expected to start sending vote-by-mail ballots out for the April 20 election at the end of this week, and drop boxes in Buena Vista Township and Buena Borough will be open as of Monday.
Of Atlantic County communities, only the Buenas have more than one type of election that day.
If the plan moves forward, poll workers will be trained on the new equipment April 17.
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Under the early voting law, for the November election, Atlantic County would have to provide at least five early voting locations with new equipment where any voter registered in the county could vote.
A voter would sign in, and a poll worker would pull up the voter’s information, Caterson said.
Voters would provide signatures via a stylus on an electronic screen, and if their signatures match what are on file, they would be given a punch card to take to the machine.
The punch card would be inserted and would tell the machine which ballot to bring up for the voter to use.
When a vote is cast, a paper trail of the vote would be created.
Contact Michelle Brunetti Post: 609-272-7219