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Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics


New Jersey Senate State Government Committee:
Senate Bill S-2123 establishes new Title 19A, elections; establishes elections offenses in Title 2C

Public Hearing
Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Testimony of Ingrid W. Reed

Director, New Jersey Project
Eagleton Institute of Public, Rutgers University

Introduction: Eagleton Purpose
My name is Ingrid W. Reed, and I currently direct the New Jersey Project at Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics. The mission of the Eagleton Institute is to explore state and national politics through research, education and public service -- linking the study of politics with the day-to-day practice. The New Jersey Project has focused a good part of its efforts on studying New Jersey campaigns and elections to understand the experience of voters as they participate in selecting our representatives -- the basis of our democracy.

Background: Century Foundation Report on Election Administration
I appreciate the invitation to comment on the importance of S-2123 and provide some perspective on how this bill, based on the work of the Law Revision Commission, can be helpful to New Jersey in providing better elections for its citizens. My observations come largely from the work I did in connection with preparing a report for the Century Foundation on the 2001 gubernatorial election in New Jersey. It was one of four reports commissioned by the Foundation -- the others looked at the gubernatorial election in Virginia, and the mayoralty races in Los Angeles and New York City -- to assess the extent to which problems evident in Florida and elsewhere in 2000 persisted throughout most of the country. Since I prepared the report, I also have participated in a national meeting organized by the McCormick Foundation in Chicago and the National League of Women Voters to explore the initiatives now underway to reform elections and to take advantage of the new federal law, the Help America Vote Act, the subject on one of your future hearings.

The Century Foundation report was based on gathering information by watching, listening, interviewing and looking at election practices from the perspective of the voter. It was a bottom up approach to studying elections and understanding what the process is and appears to be. Coincidentally, the work was done during the same time that the New Jersey Law Revision Commission was drafting its proposals, yet the two sets of conclusions, though arrived at independently, dovetail.

Need for Change: Century Foundation Report and Law Revision Commission Show Direction
I think they can be summarized this way: New Jersey has an opportunity to serve the voters better by providing for clear administrative responsibilities at the state level to coordinate and streamline the voting process. This would include registration, voter information and education, and the management of casting and counting ballots.

New Jersey is indeed fortunate to have this opportunity to move with the Law Revision Commission report and the new federal election reform law. The Commission's recommendations as found in S-2123 give useful and relevant direction for administration of elections as called for in the new federal law and redress deficiencies in New Jersey practice. It revises the current statutes covering elections and provides guidance for the use of new technology. In addition, it offers New Jersey the opportunity to improve its systems by learning from past experience and incorporating the best of what other states have done in revising their election administration.

Need Accountability to the State
Let me make some comments about what I learned from my study that relate to these observations. Very early on, it was clear that New Jersey's decentralized county-based system is very similar to Florida's well known to all of us since 2000. However, in the intervening period, Florida has moved to address its shortcomings and begun to build a system that emphasizes training and measurement of performance and has their counties employing consistent practices and technology.

In New Jersey, while the State technically is responsible for elections, there is no clearly defined role for it as counties and municipalities are charged with administering elections. This means there is no "feed back" loop in which the State provides direction and receives a report on how elections were carried out, what initiatives were undertaken, what problems were addressed, what problems remain and then acts to improve administration. In effect, the system lacks accountability. Let me add a comment here about the usefulness of reports that comes from my study. Specifically, I am referring to the seventh report required of the federal monitor in the Passaic County election. It presents an in-depth and inspiring view of what it takes to run an election. This kind of information is useful in conveying the complexity of administering elections and the possibilities of taking creative approaches to running them. Reports of this kind prepared by county election administrators on a systematic basis would add enormously to our knowledge of elections and our ability to improve them. In addition, new reporting relationships are in order as the State now, rather than just the counties, provides funding for elections by purchasing new systems, as it did in Sussex and Salem counties, in allocated funds for doubling the pay for election workers.

Need Transparency in the System State-wide
A second issue in which the absence of a State-led approach is a problem relates to providing consistent, accessible and timely communications about registration and voting. Twenty-one counties acting separately is more confusing to voters and potential voters that it needs to be. In effect, there is no transparency to the process. The citizens of New Jersey deserve to be served in a fair and open manner using modern communication techniques that do not depend on the county in which they reside -- a fact that may or may not be known to them -- to ensure effective participation.

Need to Identify Exemplary Election Administration
The lack of an accountable and transparent system obviously does not mean that New Jersey has a totally flawed system. Without coordinated management, however, it is impossible to identify and recognize performances that are exemplary, or performances that could be improved with assistance, or performances that simply are not meeting needs of the voters. It is also impossible to be sure that responsibilities for the various components of the admirable election system we all desire are placed at the appropriate levels of government. In the informal survey for the Century Foundation study, we learned that key areas such a training poll workers, services for bilingual voters and assistance for voters with disabilities varied across counties or information was lacking about them. Similarly, programs to promote voting and help voters learn about voting machines occurs in some counties, but are clearly difficult to communicate in a practical sense when six different types of machines are in use. Also, I think it is fair to say that our decentralized system has inhibited us from using web sites for voting information to their full potential.

Need to Clarify Election Administration at County Level
Finally, there is another opportunity for improvement at the county level. In our survey, we heard a number of times that the split responsibilities between county clerk, the superintendent, and the board of elections is confusing for voters and for the staff. And, further, we learned that the political role of the clerk as an elected official inevitably raises some questions about fairness. I say this as a staff person at the Eagleton Institute, the one place where politics is not a dirty word and where we encourage full participation in partisan politics. At the same time, we also recognize that there are times when partisan politics should be left out of our system of governance or replaced by a bi-partisan approach. Again, let me refer to my study. In looking at four cases studies of difficult problems addressed in the 2001 election, it was apparent that the tension of partisan roles and the perception of bias impeded the wise and efficient outcome of disputes and probably hindered constructive follow up to the issues raised. There is no doubt that counties and municipalities will remain essential in the administration of elections, but this is the time to find ways to make their involvement as effective as possible by measures that eliminate the partisan pressures and places them within a modern management system.

Need to Act on New Federal Law and State Initiatives to Improve the Election System
I want to make one final reference to my report which includes a set of recommendations, nearly all of which are addressed in the Law Revision Commission work -- except I also emphasize a need to recognize outstanding achievements in election administration at the county and local level and adopting those achievements on a state-wide basis. I concluded my report with this statement:

The challenge is to find a way to address the systemic issues about election administration in order to assure that the more specific issues are implemented fairly and efficiently and not simply added on to an already complex overburdened structure ... Leadership from the governor and the legislature will be required to define the expectation for reform and to engage, not ignore, the many individuals and entities already involved in the election process to craft a new system.

I believe we are at that rare moment when this should be done and can be done. With the Help America Vote Act providing funds for new voting systems and the impetus for a state-wide voter registration list at the same time that a direction for New Jersey's own reform effort are well identified in the Law Revision Commission report, we will be able to ensure the citizens of our state that we have an election system that is accountable and transparent, one that encourages their participation and is efficient and effective in guaranteeing access and fairness.

Thank you for the opportunity of speaking with you today. I hope you will call on me and my colleagues at the Eagleton Institute of Politics to assist you in any way as you address the challenge of election reform.

Reference: "The 2001 New Jersey Election."