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New Jersey Officials Face Challenges Ahead of Nov. Election

Election officials are stretched thin as the state prepares to implement early in-person voting with new voting technology while also experiencing a widespread election worker shortage.

(TNS) — After 24 years in her job, Gloucester County, N.J., elections superintendent Stephanie Salvatore joked that she had gotten bored.

“It’s like Groundhog Day,” said Salvatore, referencing the famous Bill Murray movie where his character lives the same day over and over. “I want something else.”

Then came 2020, the first general election this century forced to account for a global pandemic. To avoid unsafe crowding at polling locations, the state scrapped widespread in-person voting and required mail ballots for all but those who had a disability that required access to a voting machine — an unprecedented move. June’s primary brought a brief return to normality as widespread in-person voting resumed. But soon, November’s general will once again come with unique challenges.

“I got my wish,” she said. “I’m not bored any more.”

The upcoming general election is stretching election officials thin, as they contend for the first time with implementing early in-person voting, in which voters can visit centralized “megasite” polling places Oct. 23-31 to cast their ballots in advance of formal Election Day on Nov. 2.

The new early voting mandate is also contributing to an election worker labor shortage. With 10 total days of voting, officials need more people than ever to serve as board workers. And yet, as the pandemic rages on, some of the most experienced and consistent volunteers, who are often senior citizens, are choosing to retire or stay home.

There are other challenges, too. Early voting requires new equipment, including electronic poll books where voters sign their names, replacing the old paper ones. Those are crucial, as voters can go to any of the megasites within their counties. Officials need a centralized database to ensure voters can’t cast ballots at more than one site. Also, since voters from any precinct can go to any megasite, officials need to be able to print custom ballots for each voter depending on their residence.

The new state standards also require counties to use voting machines that produce a paper record of votes cast, allowing officials to do a hand recount of ballots if necessary. Thirteen counties chose machines from voting company Election Systems & Software, while eight counties went with systems from Dominion Voting Systems.

Salvatore blames the worker shortage on pay. She said her county has Election Day covered, but she’s finding it difficult to recruit enough workers to cover the early voting days.

Working an early voting location is an opportunity for a flexible temp job. Poll workers make $14.29 per hour, and there is no minimum for how many hours a poll worker must work. Workers who reach more than 40 hours in a week will make time and a half for those hours. But Salvatore said counties are in stiff competition for those workers, especially as the holiday season approaches and people might be able to find a higher wage, plus a signing bonus, at places like Target or Amazon.

“We’re New Jersey, there are a ton of places looking for workers,” said Salvatore. “There’s a place probably within walking distance that has a help wanted sign up.”

On Election Day, most counties pay workers a flat-rate $200 for a whole day’s work, $100 for a half day, or $14.29 per hour. The pay is standardized because the state reimburses counties according to a pay schedule. Camden County kicks in more, offering $275 for the whole day.

“We’ve been pushing legislators for an increase in pay,” said Beth Thompson, Hunterdon County’s Board of Elections Supervisor.

When faced with a poll worker shortage ahead of the June primary election, state officials kicked in a bonus that doubled poll worker pay. There isn’t currently a plan to give out bonuses for the general election, Salvatore said.

That means some poll workers who were willing to come out for $400 this past summer are choosing to stay home rather than take a pay cut, said Camden County elections commissioner Rich Ambrosino.

Camden County is facing the opposite problem from neighboring Gloucester: it has enough early voting workers but is about 600 workers short for Election Day. That’s the case even though Camden County kicks in its own money to up board worker pay to $275 on Election Day.

“So what (the state) did in June (by upping pay) actually hurt us in November,” Ambrosino said.

State officials announced a push to recruit workers last week.

“We are actively recruiting poll workers and asking our citizens to do their parts in making our democracy work,” Secretary of State Tahesha Way said in a statement. “Poll workers will play an important role in making our first year of in-person early voting well organized and efficient. Serving as a poll worker is an opportunity to earn a little money while providing an important public service to your community and your state.”

Camden County will still open all the polling locations, even if they don’t hit their worker target. But despite the options to vote early in person or by mail, Camden officials worry a worker shortage could lead to longer lines at polling locations on Election Day, which could mean some voters choose to give up rather than wait.

Voters can always choose to request a mail ballot and either mail it in, drop it off at an elections office or visit a dropbox. A new state directive orders counties to have a minimum of 10 drop boxes, including in every municipality with at least 5,000 voters. Camden County is upping its dropbox locations from fewer than 10 to 39 this year in order to comply.

“Voters love it,” Ambrosino said. But, noting the county had to hire temporary workers to drive around to all the boxes every day, which takes hours, he added: “It’s a nightmare for us.”

In Hunterdon County, Thompson said her office of five full-time employees plus one part-time employee is doing its best to stay afloat.

It has to train 500 board workers. And it has to implement the new electronic poll books and voting machines. Meanwhile, Thompson said, she’s still waiting on some equipment from the state.

Hunterdon is using machines from ES&S. Like many other counties, officials there have chosen to phase those new machines in during early voting this year, but will use their old machines for Election Day. That’s because counties need fewer new machines to run the megasites as opposed to equipping all the Election Day polling places with machines. Phasing the machines in through early voting allows counties to test the new equipment and spread out cost. By next year, all the counties will be using the new machinery for everything.

And yet, despite the effort, Thompson said estimates suggest only several thousand Hunterdon voters will cast ballots in person early. On one hand, that may take the pressure off poll workers, as Hunterdon, too, is struggling to fill out its volunteer ranks.

“It’s a relief, but it’s also sad, because we are jumping through hoops, we are doing everything we can to get this up and ready, and if people aren’t going to show up, it’s pretty bad,” Thompson said. “And I think the whole point of early voting is to increase turnout … and if that was the purpose and it fails, it’s not good.”

How would she describe in one word preparing for this election?

“Overwhelming. How’s that?”


Interested in becoming a poll worker? Apply at PollWorker.NJ.Gov. ©2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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