When the Christie administration announced in the days after Sandy hit coastal towns that displaced residents would be able to vote via email, some folks wondered whether election officials could accommodate such a radical change on such short notice.
It turns out they couldn’t.
The resulting confusion— directions given to citizens and county clerks didn’t quite match up with election law— has called thousands of votes into question.
A few days before the election, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who is the state’s top elections officer, announced that residents who had been driven from their homes would be able to vote via email and fax.
The change was well-intentioned, designed to ensure that everyone would have a chance to vote in an election held just a week after the devastating storm. And the commitment to making it as easy as possible for people to cast ballots certainly helped contribute to Gov. Chris Christie’s spike in popularity following the way he handled Sandy’s aftermath. (A Quinnipiac University poll released this week showed Christie with the kind of approval rating New Jersey residents usually reserve for cheesesteaks.) More than 10,000 people tried to cast their votes via email. Unfortunately, many of those votes will not be counted. That’s the conclusion of Penny Venetis, a Rutgers University election-law professor and codirector of the school’s Constitutional Litigation Clinic, whose students have been studying what actually happened after Guadagno’s directive.
They found what you might expect— that it’s not a good idea to try to change election rules on the fly.
Overwhelmed county clerks had trouble responding to all the requests for electronic ballots. Some clerks— and many voters— were unaware that the law allowing email voting, designed for use by military and overseas voters, requires voters to also send in a paper copy by regular mail.
The fact that thousands of those votes couldn’t be verified could potentially make a difference in the 75 local elections that were still too close to call weeks after Election Day. How clerks handled the electronic ballots could be a basis for contesting the results of those elections.
But while the state’s cobbled-together experiment with Internet voting didn’t quite work out, it did point to the potential for improving our election laws.
That work should be done now, before the next emergency, and well before the next presidential election. Let’s face it, there are better ways to vote.
Voting on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November dates to 1845 and is a throwback to a time when a largely rural population did not want to travel by wagon on Sunday to get to polling places. Now, many people find voting on a workday difficult, one reason voter participation is consistently low.
New Jersey should join 32 other states that have adopted early voting, which allows people to vote on weekends and days off. And, in an age of online shopping, banking and dating, there’s no reason we can’t figure out this Internet voting thing and make our elections more closely fit 21st century lifestyles.