So many new NJ voters, so little time to log them

October 12, 2008 8:17:28 AM PDT
With the registration deadline only a day away, New Jersey election officials say they're struggling to keep up with a record tide of new voter registrations. "We're running this office in a crisis mode right now," said Laura B. Freytes, Passaic County's election superintendent.

Elections supervisors are asking workers to put in 12-hour days and work weekends, and they're hiring temporary employees or borrowing workers from other government departments to try to process the new registrations.

The deadline to register is Tuesday; voters who have registrations handed in or postmarked by or on Tuesday will be eligible to cast ballots in the Nov. 4 election. New voter registration is headed for an all-time high in New Jersey and across the nation.

Some county elections supervisors say they probably won't be able to process all the new registrations by Election Day, meaning some registered voters will be handed provisional ballots when they show up at their polling places.

New Jersey officials say they have never seen this many new registrations. They attribute the spike to a push to register voters at driver license offices, and to a heightened interest in presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain.

Dennis Kobitz, the administrator of the Union County Board of Elections, has taken over the conference room in his office to open the 1,000 voter registrations a day that have been coming in the mail.

"Normally, I do the mail at my desk," he said. "My desk is not big enough."

In at least three counties - Essex, Passaic and Somerset - election officials do not think they will be able to process every form in time to get every registered voter in the books that workers use to check in voters at polling places.

Voters whose names do not appear in the books are entitled to use paper provisional ballots. The provisional ballots are counted after officials verify the voters are registered.

Voters can also go to a judge on duty in each county on Election Day to ask for an order that would allow them vote on a machine. Lawyers from the state, political parties and the American Civil Liberties Union will be on hand to help resolve disputes over whether people are registered.

In many counties, some new voters' forms will not be processed in time to get them in the main books, but they will be included in supplemental listings. County officials will be able to confirm they are registered through these listings and allow them to vote in the booth.

Union County's Kobitz said the last time he had to push his employees this hard was in 1984. That year, registrations spiked because it was the first time New Jersey allowed voters to sign up by mail. There are even more registrations this year, but entering voters took longer back then because it was all done without the help of computers.

This time around, several election officials said, the job is taking longer than in recent years partly because of new software that requires more details about voters.

Election officials say the surge in registrations is partly due to letters the state sent to people who have had transactions at Motor Vehicle Commission offices but were not registered. But the biggest factor, they say, seems to be enthusiasm about the presidential election.

The race is drawing so attracting more people not only to register themselves, but also to register others.

"Every hour, at least one person come in and asks for 200 forms," said Carmine Casciano, the superintendent of elections in Essex County.

People running voter registration drives this year go way beyond the regulars, like political parties and the League of Women Voters. This year, all sorts of community organizations, businesses and individuals are signing people up.

George Cook, a FedEx worker from Hillside (near Newark), has been delivering voter registration forms on the side.

Cook, 40, said he decided to register voters because he did not see other efforts in his community and because he thought it would be an easier way to help the Obama campaign than working at a phone bank.

Along with his wife and his mother, Cook has set up tables in the library and a community fair his town near Newark. He has also gone to barber shops and people's homes to register voters.

By late last week, they had signed up 34 new voters.

"Most of them made the same excuse," Cook said. "That they were going to, but they didn't get around to it."

Cook said he's spending some of his time reassuring people that they can vote even if they've been to prison - as long as they've fulfilled all their probation obligations.

Kevin Riordan, a spokesman for Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, said his group has signed up about 150 voters at events for clients - most of them homeless - in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey.

While the organization has signed up voters before, he said this year's effort is more extensive, with an emphasis on explaining to people the technical side of voting - details such as where to go and how to use a voting machine.

"Some of the demand is coming from the ground up," he said. "There is an awareness of the importance of the presidential election."

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On the Net:

Voter registration information: http://www.njelections.org/


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