On October 19, 2012, I had the opportunity to speak with Paula Sollami Covello, the County Clerk in Mercer County, New Jersey. She is responsible for ballots, positioning on the ballots, and Election Day counting of returns. She was first elected to this office in 2006.
Mrs. Covello described the three offices responsible for running elections. “The Clerk’s office draws the ballots and positions. We also print the ballots, and prep sample and print and issue vote-by-mail ballots…The Clerk’s office also counts votes on Election Night.” She also described the roles of the other two offices, “The Superintendant of elections deals with voter registration… The Board of Elections is a bipartisan board, two Democrats and two Republicans. The Board counts all the vote-by-mail ballots. They are also in charge of polling locations and training poll workers.” Mrs. Covello expressed faith in this process, saying that this three-office system “provides good checks and balances. There are multiple offices with responsibilities, and it functions in a bipartisan way. The County Clerk is elected, but the staff is all civil servants, and the Superintendant is from one party, but the deputy Superintendant is from the other major party.”
Printing ballots, one of the County Clerk’s roles, is a key part of the election process, one that becomes increasingly challenging as more matters are placed on the ballot under New Jersey law this year. “Printing has been very interesting this year. We have more offices on the ballots. For example, school boards can opt to be on November ballots. Five [Mercer] townships are doing that this year. This makes the ballot really crowded. We have ten presidential candidates, eleven United States Senate candidates, then all local and county offices, and school boards.” In addition, “everyone has at least three public questions, two state, one county, and some localities have local questions. We’ve never seen [a ballot] like this before….The problem that we face is that we’re running out of space. [The machines only have] so many switch positions you can use for candidates’ names. When the legislature passes these laws, maybe they do it with the best of intentions, but they don’t take into consideration the fact that these machines only have limited space.”
In preparing these ballots, the County Clerk’s office pays particular attention to the ramifications of crowding, working to ensure the ballots are as fair and accessible as possible:
“Space has been a factor for school board elections because they are at the bottom of the ballot and there is always a drop off in voter participation as you go down ballots from the top to the bottom. But, you’re going to have more people voting in school board elections… now that the school board election is in November. So, because this is our first, we’ll have to see.”
“As far as ballot safety, we set everything apart with black lines so that you vote for the proper candidates… Some municipalities have a non-partisan election, so we separate those with a black line because they’re not part of the general election. We have another black line with a new heading for the school board election… we try to make everything stand out and separate by using thick dark lines.”
Another recent New Jersey law has impacted ballot preparation this year. Ballots are being offered in multiple languages in communities where there is a substantial percentage of the population for whom English is not their first or primary language. In Mercer County, this means the Clerk must prepare bilingual ballots. Other areas of New Jersey may require tri- or quad-lingual ballots, or more. Mrs. Covello notes that this change is important because as County Clerk, her obligation is to “serve the public, to serve all of the people in my community,” though she recognizes that some people may be worried or offended by the idea that they would need a translation because, “they are proud of the fact that they speak English” but her overall objective is to improve comfort and access for the public. “If more than 10% of the local population speaks a language other than English as their primary language, then it is important to ensure access by providing them a translation in their language…. It’s the hope that everyone will get an opportunity to participate, and we don’t want people to feel intimidated [because] they don’t understand the ballot…I’m not sure if it will really increase turnout…but it’s important to help people participate”
Another change in New Jersey election law is mail-in voting. New Jersey now permits vote-by-mail for all citizens, not just absentee voters. As a result, Mercer County has seen a “dramatic increase in the amount of people voting by mail in ballot. We have over 7000 people on the permanent vote-by-mail list. [This program] didn’t exist when I started out [as clerk] in 2006, and it’s grown, so we have 7000 permanent vote-by-mail, voters, and we also have 3000 more already issued for this election…. In 2008, we had 10,000 total [by the election], so it has increased.”
The characteristics of the vote-by-mail voter vary. Mrs. Covello explained, “students and elderly are the largest groups of users, but we also have many people… who just prefer it. People who have to work long hours or cannot get to the voting booth are also voting this way because it allows them to vote now. They can get their vote cast and recorded.” She also describes some voters who have chosen to vote-by-mail because they are more comfortable with casting a paper ballot: “some people have decided to vote by mail because it is a safer bet. There are people in …our area who do not seem to trust electronic voting machines; they are still worried voting machines can be tampered with or have other concerns so they vote by mail because they want to have their vote on paper.” This flexibility improves access for Mercer County voters, and helps to alleviate concerns some voters may have voting technology. In describing this process, Mrs. Covello also addressed a common fear among voters: “A lot of people don’t believe their vote is counted if it is cast by mail, and, actually, those are counted first. Right at eight o clock, when the polls close, we start opening those vote by mail ballots and counting them.”
Speaking of counting votes, Mercer County has embraced optical scan technology for vote-by-mail vote counting. “We recently got a new scanner…and we are going to be able to count faster, [which is important] for the larger number of ballots. Optical scan will also help us do the reports…. We should be able to break them down by district and town.”
When the state switched from its old lever machines, there were concerns about voters using the new technology. In the transition, Mercer took these considerations into account: “We use Dominion machines.” All but three New Jersey counties use them. “The reason we’ve gone with Dominion is because they are laid out similarly to the old lever machines, and everyone felt comfortable with that. The freeholders who purchased them were comfortable with the layout as a way to make people comfortable.” Attention to these kinds of considerations ensures voter confidence in their election process.
Mrs. Covello identified these many positive changes in election process as a legislative directive “The legislature looked around the country and [saw] some initiatives that work in other states to make it more accessible and easier for people to vote.” However, she noted that when these changes are being considered, “you always have to worry about security, and the integrity of the system.” In fact, “there are bills out there to allow people to vote over the internet. We really feel internet voting would be insecure. People could tamper with it, and we’re not really there yet for security.”
She went on to describe the important issues that arise with voting procedures being considered and implemented across the nation. For example, “Oregon is now all vote-by-mail. They don’t have machines at all….Things like that prompt our legislature to really look at our options and consider changes…Those kinds of dramatic changes are important to really think about… [For example,] I talk to seniors about how they can vote by mail and they talk about liking to go to their polls, seeing the people in their neighborhood, and I get that… I don’t think that kind of decision, to go to all vote-by-mail would be popular here because of that.”
Mrs. Covello is particularly cognizant of the many considerations relevant to elections. In describing her path to the office she holds, she said, “I grew up in political family. I always had an interest in the political process and was intrigued by it. When I first got out of law school I worked on a campaign for Governor Florio…and I got a job in his administration, which gave me the incentive to work in government. [Next, I] spent eight years working as an attorney in the Department of Education…. Eventually, when I ran for this office I had a strong public administration and legal background. There is a lot of government administration in running an election and overseeing personnel, and my experience in government has been just invaluable. There are certain things you have to learn when you work in government, at least in New Jersey…. You have to learn about civil service laws and how people are promoted…. And learn how to get things done… purchasing and bidding, [etc…]There are so many rules [that you need to know to be able to effectively administer an election]…. Also, just being involved in politics and knowing the issues is so helpful. Issues come up like political parties and chair-people who want to control the order of the candidates and you need to deal with that, which means you need to understand where that’s coming from and try to keep order and fairness in the process. I have democratic and republican civil servants in my office on election night, and I have sheriff’s officers in my office. We [also] have specific rules so that the press cannot come into the counting room, All of these things are important to the process…, and a background in public administration is essential for that.”
Mrs. Covello also had some insight as to how the Mercer County and New Jersey election process shapes up to the international community’s practices and expectations. “In England, they only do paper ballots. They don’t trust machines, so they have to stay until 4 a.m. counting the ballots.” However, Mrs. Covello acknowledges one benefit to having election returns on paper. “It would be good if we had a paper backup, and NJ doesn’t require that right now. What that would mean is you’d have a print out when people vote and you could input that into a machine…that would give you a read out and a hard copy of the vote…. The paper backup would help to make the election safer because if there were concerns about the machine or people wanted to have a verified count, we could do that using the paper backup. In NJ there is only limited funding, so the state can’t buy these machines. We have the machines we have, and we’ve never seen any problems with them, but I would ultimately like to see a paper back up.”
On the whole, Mrs. Covello expressed confidence and pride in the Mercer County election process. She noted that the “international elections observers have been very impressed by New Jersey. Our elections are well executed, and we have good technology in place.”
As New Jersey updates its election practices, the localities are at the forefront, ensuring that voters can vote, and have their votes counted. Mercer County is ready to put its new technology to work this Election Day.