By Craig J. Coughlin
If you look across the country these days, how to conduct an election in a fair and transparent way is not an issue that Democrats and Republicans have been able to find much agreement on. But while that may be the case in Washington or in other states, that’s exactly what legislators in New Jersey did in June.
Shortly after the election last November, we noticed there were some issues in the way results were reported that were leading to confusion. Even though the election was fair and the counting of ballots was accurate, the way they are reported on election night didn’t always make the most sense.
Rather than retreating to our own partisan corners, we decided to listen to some of the concerns people had. And we realized that the people with concerns had some good points.
Here’s the problem: When our elections systems were formed several hundred years ago, they were made so that farmers could take a day to travel from the country to a town and vote. The world we live in today doesn’t look anything like that world, and we’ve updated our voting systems to reflect that — it’s now more convenient than ever before to vote in New Jersey. You can register to vote when you update your driver’s license. You can choose to receive a ballot in the mail. You can vote in person a few days early, at times that are convenient for your schedule.
This is all very healthy for our democracy. Maybe you have two jobs and need to work at both on Election Day. Maybe juggling a demanding job followed by a long commute home and then picking the kids up and getting dinner on the table means you don’t have time to consider all of the issues carefully at the polls. Maybe you’re a student in another town or state. None of that should mean you lose your voice in the democratic process.
But while we did a lot of work to make voting more accessible, we hadn’t updated the way we report the results for those following along on election night. This led to confusion. For example, some people went to bed on election night thinking their county had reported all of the ballots it had, only to wake up seeing tens of thousands more ballots were cast when they checked the next morning and they became suspicious.
It wasn’t because tens of thousands more ballots had actually shown up — it’s just that we weren’t being transparent that many mail-in ballots hadn’t been counted yet. So one thing our new laws do is require that the people counting the ballots tell you how many of the total number of ballots have been counted, rather than just those cast at the polls on Election Day.
There were some other problems we addressed. Some people thought the last election took far too long to count, partially because election workers weren’t allowed to touch mail-in ballots until after the polls closed.
Our law now allows election workers to safely and securely remove the ballots from the envelopes, make sure they were legally cast, and prepare them for counting so that as soon as the polls close, the only thing that needs to be done is count them. No one will be allowed to know the results of those ballots, but it means in future elections, we’ll get election night results much faster.
We worked on these issues in a bipartisan way and then introduced several bills in March — making them publicly available for nearly two months before we started hearings. During that time, we talked to election workers, voting rights experts, county clerks, and anyone else who wanted to meet. Then we held three public hearings on the legislation before the full Assembly voted on them in June.
The result was Democrats and Republicans coming together to make sure that when you vote, you know your vote was secure and counted fairly. And if you want to follow the results on election night, you can see those results in a transparent and easily understandable way.
The only way to strengthen our democracy is to make sure we can all participate in it, and that the people have trust in the results and the process. Working together across the aisle, we accomplished just that.
As proud as I am of the final product, I’m even more proud to say that in New Jersey, we’re still able to work together to make sure that you, the voters, are the ones making decisions about our future, and you can trust and easily understand that process.
New Jersey General Assembly Speaker Craig J. Coughlin represents the 19th Legislative District, which includes Carteret, Perth Amboy, South Amboy, Sayreville, and Woodbridge in Middlesex County.