Amid nationwide efforts to restrict access to the ballot box, New Jersey is pushing ahead with plans to expand voting opportunities for the state's upcoming elections.
On Thursday, the state Senate voted 28-8 to approve a bill requiring early in-person voting options for primary and general elections. The state House voted in favor of the bill earlier this month, so it now goes to Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who is expected to sign it as early as next week.
It's unclear, however, if there will be enough time or money to get the new early voting system in place in time for gubernatorial, state legislative and municipal primaries in June and general elections in November.
Currently, the only way New Jerseyans can vote early is by mail. Once this legislation is enacted, New Jersey will join two dozen other states that require a certain number of days for in-person early voting.
Under this bill, the state would allow for three days of early voting for most primaries, five days of early voting for presidential primaries and nine days (including weekends) of early voting for general elections. For the upcoming general election, the early voting period would be Oct. 23-31. (New Jersey and Virginia conduct non-federal elections in odd years.)
Additionally, the measure requires all 21 counties to open between three and seven early voting locations, depending on the number of registered voters in each county.
Those polling locations also must use voting machines that produce a verifiable paper trail, meaning 16 counties would need to purchase new equipment to adhere to this standard. Counties would also need to buy electronic poll books to check in voters and verify registration statuses in real time.
Election officials have raised concerns over the feasibility of implementing an early voting system when both time and funding is short. A fiscal analysis of the bill estimates the cost to be at least $28 million and possibly exceeding $50 million.
The legislation itself only appropriates $2 million for the purchase of printers for paper ballots. But Murphy's budget proposal includes $40 million for the early voting system — $20 million for the current fiscal year and $20 million for the year beginning July 1. The governor's budget is currently under review by the Legislature.
Even if the funding is secured, it's unlikely the system will be in place in time for the statewide primaries in three months. The hope instead is that it will be ready for the general election in November.
While local officials are concerned about the quick timeline, Democratic lawmakers in Trenton say now is not the time to delay on voting expansions. Proponents of the legislation want New Jersey to be seen as a leader in expanding voting access, as Republicans across the country continue to push restrictive measures.
"There are few rights more important than a citizen's ability to vote," said Democratic Sen. Nia Gill, who sponsored the bill. "Passing early voting and implementing electronic poll books will ensure our fundamental right to have our voices heard."
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Louisiana's unique standing as an election integrity risk, because it's the only state without any paper trail for votes, is going to continue indefinitely.
That's because the top elections official on Wednesday called off his search to replace the state's antiquated and entirely electronic fleet of 10,000 voting machines.
Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin acted amid a whipsaw of criticism. On one side are two election equipment manufacturers who filed formal complaints alleging the bidding process was tailored to favor the current vendor, Dominion Voting Systems. On the other side are influential fellow Republicans, furious that a $100 million contract might go to the firm that former President Donald Trump has put at the heart of his conspiracy theories about election rigging.
Caught in the middle will be the state's electorate, who will remain the only people in the country with no connection to the world of balloting best practices. Even as the threat of hacking raises significant worries about relying on computer chips and code to record and keep track of votes, that is all Louisiana has done for more than two decades. At least some jurisdictions in every other state either use paper ballots or keep a paper record of their tallies.
This is the second time the state's efforts to replace its machines has been stopped by controversy. Dominion was the low bidder in 2018, but Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration scrapped the deal after concluding an earlier secretary of state's office failed to follow procurement rules.
Two interested bidders, Texas-based Hart InterCivic and Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software, have filed complaints asserting that's happening again, with requirements written so that only Dominion could meet them. Ardoin has strongly rebutted those claims.
But senior GOP legislators in Baton Rouge had already seized on them to call for a halt in the machine replacement process — in part, several outspoken allies of Trump have said, because they do not trust Colorado-based Dominion.
Trump and his allies have persistently perpetuated fact-free claims that Dominion machinery was fraudulently manipulated to propel President Biden's narrow victories in several swing states — without offering any explanation why the same shenanigans did nothing to alter the results in red states. Trump extended the GOP presidential winning streak in Louisiana to six in November, securing its eight electoral votes by 18 points.
Dominion has filed $1.3 billion defamation lawsuits against both Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, the attorneys who directed the defeated president's flood of unsuccessful post-election litigation hoping to reverse the outcome, as well as MyPillow CEO and Trump loyalist Mike Lindell.
Louisiana wants its new system to permit voters to see their choices on paper before casting their ballots, and produce a paper trail to be used for audits and possible recounts. This is essentially the new standard for reliable democracy.
Ardoin said he would "spend the next few months seeking to undo the damage to voter confidence done by those who willfully spread misinformation and disinformation," and would then start the search anew — potentially in time for new machines to be deployed for the 2022 midterm.
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The Election Assistance Commission is poised to approve new voting security standards this week, but election security experts are ringing alarm bells over a last-minute change they call "profoundly ill-advised and unacceptably insecure."
Ahead of Wednesday's vote, the federal agency tweaked a section of the proposal to allow for disabled wireless technology to be included in voting equipment — a move election security experts say would pose a serious cybersecurity threat to the United States.
Experts fear this change could also undermine efforts to build back trust in the nation's election systems after a divisive 2020 contest that millions of Americans still erroneously believe was stolen from former President Donald Trump.
The so-called Voluntary Voting System Guidelines 2.0 is the first set of new voting security standards put forth by the EAC in 15 years. The draft clarifies that wireless hardware within a voting system is permitted, as long as the wireless connection is disabled. The agency said an outright ban on wireless technology would make obtaining voting equipment more difficult and costly for states.
But nearly two dozen computer science, security and election integrity experts wrote to the EAC last week warning that wireless devices, even if disabled, would "profoundly weaken" voting system security and significantly increase the chances of remote cyberattacks.
"If wireless networking capability is there, it is inevitable that it will get turned on and used," the letter says. "It would be a recklessly naïve mistake to expect that procedures and processes could ensure that the wireless capability could or would not be activated, intentionally or unintentionally."
Wireless voting technology is already banned in California, Colorado, New York and Texas. The guidelines being considered by the EAC will serve as a benchmark for 38 states when determining what voting equipment to use. The other 12 states will more strictly follow the standards.
Election security experts are not only concerned with the changes in the proposal, but also how the alterations were made. The good-government group Free Speech For People alleges the EAC violated the Help America Vote Act because commissioners met with voting system vendors in non-public meetings before releasing the amended draft. Passed in 2002 to reform the country's voting systems, HAVA established the EAC and requires the agency's work to be public-facing.
"The EAC's attempted end-run around the Help America Vote Act and avoidance of public scrutiny endanger the security of America's elections and violate federal law," Ron Fein and Susan Greenhalgh of Free Speech For People wrote in a separate letter sent to the EAC last week.
But the EAC maintains it followed the appropriate procedures required by HAVA and the clarification was made in accordance with feedback received during the public comment period. Five days before the scheduled vote on the proposed guidelines, the agency published a six-page document to "dispel misinformation" about it.
The document notes that the EAC worked closely and held frequent meetings with experts at the National Institute of Standards and Technology to clean up the voting guidelines' language to remove redundancies and improve clarity.
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Still, it's worth acknowledging the guardrails that have held fast against the nation's severe democracy stress test, and against Trump's specious and ongoing fraud allegations. There's no guarantee these railings would hold against a more sophisticated adversary, and the need to shore up voting rights and election administration remains urgent.
But the fundamentals of American democracy appear to have prevailed, thanks to key institutions that upheld the law and relied on the facts. These are the six most important:
The military: As early as August, Congress received assurances from Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the military would play "no role" in any post-election disputes.
And after Trump raised fresh alarms with his post-election firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and some of his top Pentagon aides, Milley declared pointedly on Veterans Day: "We are unique among militaries. We do not take an oath to a king, or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. ... We take an oath to the Constitution."
The courts: The long list of judges who rejected Trump's election challenges include several conservatives nominated by Trump and his GOP predecessors, who debunked the president's legal claims as baseless in the extreme.
As attorney Mark Aronchick, who represented Philadelphia in several Trump campaign cases, told The New York Times, the president's legal challenges were "very much a stress test on what I will shout from the rooftops is the best legal system the world has ever seen, in terms of independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. And at both the state and federal level, the system has come through with flying colors."
The states: Brad Raffensperger, Georgia's Republican secretary of state, has drawn justifiable notice for withstanding personal threats and calls for his resignation to certify his state's election results, stating memorably: "Numbers don't lie."
But Raffensperger is only one of more than two dozen GOP secretaries of state who rejected Trump's false fraud allegations. Rank-and-file election administrators, poll workers and even volunteers, who managed to run an election that generated record turnout amid a pandemic with few significant problems, also carried democracy on their shoulders. State legislators, too, refused to step in and overrule voters, sensing public backlash but also in some cases resisting White House pressure.
The media: Mainstream news outlets, and even in some instances conservative Fox News, have choked the Trump campaign's Russia-style firehose of campaign disinformation with relentless fact checks and around-the-clock reporting.
The misrepresentations continue, and the president's fabrications of voter fraud have been swallowed whole by millions of Republican voters. But fact-based reporting has made it harder for the Trump campaign to advance its false claims in court, and helped mobilize voters to hold public officials accountable.
The hardware: An estimated 95 percent of votes this year were cast either using a mail-in paper ballot or a voting machine that produced a verifiable and auditable paper trail — equipment installed thanks to decades of lobbying by voting rights advocates and election security experts.
Voter-verifiable paper trails are considered an essential backstop against voting machine breakdowns, the best possible guard against hacking and as a crucial tool for audits and recounts. Existing state requirements vary, and counties in some states still use paperless voting machines despite the risk, pointing to the need for federal guidelines. But in Georgia, where a new system this year allowed voters to cast ballots with a verifiable paper trail statewide for the first time, paper records proved crucial in facilitating not one but two watertight recounts, and in debunking on its face Trump's unfounded claim that Dominion Voting Systems had somehow altered the state tally.
The voters: Almost 160 million voters turned out in this election, at almost 67 percent the highest percentage of the eligible population since the first presidential election of the 20th century.
Thousands of public and private players helped turn out voters, from business leaders to campus organizers. High turnout is at least one reason why President-elect Joe Biden's win over Trump — a margin of 4 percentage points, or 6.2 million nationwide, translating to 306 electoral votes — was sufficiently solid to withstand almost three dozen legal challenges in the past month. A closer margin could have made it much easier for Trump to manipulate the outcome. Voters have also remained engaged, exerting public pressure on GOP legislators to refrain from intervening in election certifications.
The success of these and other democracy guardrails may be small consolation, given the extent of Trump's assault on the rule of law, the peaceful transfer of power and the basic right to vote. Trump has created a playbook for some future would-be autocrat to follow, election law experts warn, and recent Supreme Court rulings may also jeopardize voting rights by giving state legislatures new powers to restrict access to the polls.
In the minds of good-governance advocates, all this points to the need to shore up democracy's guardrails still further in plenty of time for the 2022 midterm election.
The likeliest place to start is with the revival of HR 1, the House's catchall democracy reform package. That bill proposes automatic voter registration nationwide, expanded early and absentee voting, and funding to modernize election systems, among other changes. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has signaled she'll move it to the front burner early in the new Congress, but even if her narrowed House Democratic majority passes it again the measure would still face stiff opposition in a Senate where the GOP will hold at least 50 seats.
Many other policy changes will be needed as well -- including the sort of new executive branch ethics rules that Biden advocated during the campaign — in the wake of Trump's destructive presidency. But for the moment, at least, the system's guardrails have held.
Carney is a contributing writer.
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