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Boards of elections adjust as early vote counting allowed
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Boards of elections adjust as early vote counting allowed

Mail-in ballots counting

Joe McIntyre of ES&S counts mail-in ballots in 2018 at the Atlantic County Board of Elections using a scanner.

A new state law allows Boards of Election to start counting vote-by-mail ballots 10 days before Election Day, increasing the chance of getting earlier results but also creating a challenge to election security.

The counting is done electronically, using a scanner that reads the filled-in ovals on paper ballots.

“One of the things (the new law) brought up is, how can you safeguard ... so that no one can get into that machine?” Atlantic County Board of Elections Democratic member John Mooney said during the board’s Tuesday night special meeting.

Access to early results could be misused by parties or individuals trying to influence races by focusing last-minute efforts where their candidates are losing, Mooney said.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed three bills into law a week ago Friday, one of which allows early counting as a way of giving election boards more time to count the unprecedented number of paper mail-in ballots they will see in the general election. He previously released two executive orders requiring the election to be conducted mostly through vote-by-mail ballots, as a way of preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Atlantic County Board of Elections Chair Lynn Caterson, a Republican, said the new law specified that any release of results before close of polls on Election Day will be a third-degree criminal offense.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board voted to purchase a second scanner for counting ballots at a cost of $55,000, much or all of which it hopes will be reimbursed by federal funding for COVID-19 related expenses.

The wording of the new law makes it clear it is the responsibility of boards of elections to secure results.

“If a county board of elections begins opening the inner envelopes and canvassing (counting) the mail-in ballots from the inner envelopes prior to the day of the election, the county board shall implement the measures necessary to ensure the security and secrecy of the mail-in ballots,” the law states. “The contents of the mail-in ballots and the results of the ballot canvassing shall remain confidential and ... in no circumstances disclosed prior to the close of polls on the day of the election.”

Allowing early counting of vote-by-mail ballots will get results to voters faster in a high-interest election where turnout is expected to be extremely high.

“Timely results are definitely in the public interest,” said John Froonjian, executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University. “If they are delayed a long time, people question whether the election was rigged. Nobody wins if voters lose faith in the electoral system.”

Atlantic County anticipates receiving 120,000 to 140,000 ballots, and Cape May County anticipates handling 60,000.

“We can run ballots through the scanner, and we just don’t print results,” Cape May County Democratic Registrar Michael Kennedy said of that county’s approach to keeping results secret. “Nobody at the Board of Elections would know what the outcomes are, because we are not gong to print them.”

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But Kennedy said there isn’t a foolproof way to prevent someone from doing so.

“Unfortunately, I don’t know if there is a way to 100% stop that from happening. I can tell you it will not happen here at Cape May County Board of Elections. I’m the last guard of defense, and those reports will not be printed or shown until election night,” he said.

Kennedy acknowledged it “comes down to individuals.”

The Cape May County Board of Elections purchased two new scanners in April for the July 7 primary, Kennedy said. That office now has three scanners.

The 10-day lead time will make it likely his office will have all ballots it has received through the mail or ballot drop boxes counted by the close of polls on election night, Kennedy said. His office will post the preliminary results online after polls close.

Mooney said he’s hopeful there is some way to guarantee no one can access results in the scanner before 8 p.m. Nov. 3.

“I want to make sure no one in our office knows anything about the codes (to run results),” Mooney said.

A technician from an outside firm runs the scanner that counts votes, Mooney said. He is asking the company to guarantee in writing that no staff members from either party can get into the machine.

New Jersey is not alone in allowing early vote-counting, Froonjian said.

According to data from the National Conference of State Legislators, about a dozen states allow mail-in-ballots to be counted before Election Day, he said.

Another dozen or so allow you to start counting on Election Day before the polls close, he said, which is what New Jersey had done historically.

The changes will help election officials provide an accurate and timely vote, Froonjian said.

But he said election officials must protect election security.

“It’s extremely important that elections are fair, secure and beyond reproach,” Froonjian said.

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Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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