As New Jersey voters waited in line on Tuesday, they were handed a disposable rubber-tipped stylus to electronically sign their names before casting their ballots.
Signing the poll book is an Election Day exercise that in the past involved thick volumes of scrawled signatures tracking one’s participation in Democracy over the years — while serving to verify someone’s identify. But this year, the process was a little different.
And that didn’t come without problems.
Counties for the first time were using electronic poll books instead of paper ones — a change mandated by the move to early voting in the state.
The electronic system, which updates the state voter database in real-time, has a record of all eligible voters for each polling location. It is meant to prevent someone from voting in multiple locations or on different days, officials explained, making possible the offering of early voting with safeguards intended to to flag those trying to vote more than once.
But at a number of polling locations, election workers had issues connecting through the internet to the state database, which led to long lines in some places, and voters even being turned away from others.
In Bernardsville, a voter said new machines for District 7 failed and voters had been turned away. In Raritan Township, a poll worker had the manual out while trying to help a voter sign in. In Hillsborough, another voter said people waiting in line ultimately walked away. And at the Christopher Hope Community Center in Paterson, voters were unable to cast ballots for an hour after polls were to open at 6 a.m.
Alicia D’Alessandro, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Elections, said the problems were isolated and that most of the state’s approximately 3,400 polling locations had no issues.
“We are aware there were a small number of cases,” she said.
Technical issues aside, a year after the last election was mostly conducted through vote-by-mail ballots, Hunterdon County Elections Supervisor Beth Thompson said some voters were showing up to her office unaware that the polling locations were open this year.
Some of them, she said, were asking why they didn’t get mail ballots.
“Generally speaking, there’s a lot of voter confusion,” she said.
During the day, the county did have some issues with the electronic books. Two of the so-called e-poll books in different locations needed to be rebooted, Thompson said. But she noted each location has two books, so at no point was any location unable to process voters.
In a few instances, poll workers were running the e-poll books on battery power, which only lasts about two hours.
According to Thompson, a monitoring team at her office was able to see when poll books were charging and in a handful of instances, they reached out to polling locations to ensure devices were plugged into the wall outlets.
“The issues that we were having as far as the setup is because this was all brand new,” she said. “This is new to the whole state. There’s a learning curve.”
In Essex County, voters not only had e-poll books to sign, but also found themselves without traditional voting machines, which had its own learning curve.
County Clerk Christopher Durkin said Essex purchased Dominion optical scan reader voting machines at the end of 2019 to replace its aging Sequoia AVC electronic push button voting machines, which Essex had in use since 2006.
“Obviously 2020 was an all vote-by-mail election year,” he said. So the new system, which requires a voter to fill in a circle under a candidate’s name with a marking pen on a paper ballot that is then inserted by the voter into an optical scanning machine.
Durkin said election officials, along with the Essex County Commissioners, felt that human marked paper ballots “would better reflect the intent of the voter.”
Essex is the only county in New Jersey where the voter marks their ballot on paper. Other counties have a voting system where they use a push button electronic machine to make their choices and then the system prints their choices on a paper ballot in which they cast to be recorded, said Durkin.
Hunterdon, Middlesex, Somerset and Union counties, for example, all use new ExpressXL voting machines along with the electronic polling books. Voters check in on the e-poll books, as in other counties, and are then given a voting authority slip and a ballot activation card for the voting machine, touching a screen to make choices.
While there were election worker staffing shortages on Election Day, D’Alessandro said “we don’t believe it contributed to any broad issues.”
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Josh Solomon may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.