Senate makes quick fix to bill easing vote-by-mail for future elections

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

In a rare summer voting session, the state Senate on Monday approved a bill making it easier for anyone who voted by mail since 2016 to do so in the future.

The bill, sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney, requires county clerks to send mail-in ballots for all future elections to anyone who filed vote-by-mail applications from 2016 to 2018, unless the voter requests otherwise. The bill, S-4069, also appropriates $2 million to pay costs.

Monday’s 22-10 vote was on a version of the bill that made fixes to one that already won legislative approval, clarifying that it applies to the years between 2016 and 2018. The $2 million would go to reimburse the counties for their costs in implementing the bill.

“We knew there was going to be a lawsuit,” said Sweeney. “Unfunded mandate, basically, is what the counties were going to charge, and they would’ve been successful. So we put the money in so that we won’t have that challenge. More people voting is better for everyone.”

Republican opponents of the bill said Sweeney and his Democratic majority were trying to lock voters in as Democrats in perpetuity. They also said the bill is ripe for corruption.

“Voter fraud is very real in New Jersey, and much of that fraud centers on ballots not cast in a polling place,” said Sen. Joe Pennachio, who tried unsuccessfully to add amendments Monday. “This legislation does nothing to prevent illegal aliens from voting or to stop campaign operatives from illegally registering people, collecting ballots, and rigging elections.”

Monday’s session was interrupted when fire alarms blared throughout the State House, forcing an evacuation and a response from the Trenton Fire Department. Within a few minutes, the senators got the all clear — no fire, just workers on the roof accidentally setting off the alarm. Back inside, senators made short work of the light agenda, led by the vote-by-mail measure.

Sweeney told reporters that battles might still loom over the horizon on bills vetoed by Gov. Phil Murphy, including a measure that would have temporarily extended controversial state tax-incentive programs offered by the Economic Development Authority, which have now lapsed.

“That’s the frustration,” said Sweeney who has frequently sparred with his fellow Democrat, in particular over the EDA programs. “I mean, I understand being careful, I understand about being slow, but zero is not acceptable. I have a project in my area — shock of shocks — the company that built Rowan Blvd. was approved … this EDA board approved them, and they still won’t pay them, and there’s a project in Camden, too, that I know of. But I’m not surprised.”

The governor also conditionally vetoed a bill allowing those convicted of low-level marijuana offenses to seek an expungement of their records. In a statement, Murphy said the bill as written didn’t go far enough, noting that he favored an automatic expungement process in certain instances.

Sweeney expressed frustration, saying he had been blindsided by the governor’s action

“They react to our bills after we pass them, instead of getting with the sponsors prior,” Sweeney said.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Sandra Cunningham, who’s worked on the issue for years, also expressed disappointment about the veto last week. On Monday, she said she did not want to talk about the issue.

“Nothing on expungement,” she said. “It should be up by, hopefully, in September.”