New Jersey has added a new element to its mainly vote-by-mail approach to the 2020 elections, allowing for completed mail-in ballots to be counted ahead of Election Day.

In a flurry of activity on Aug. 27, legislation passed along party lines, with no Republican voting in favor of an amended measure that includes allowing ballots to be canvassed starting 10 days before Nov. 3.

The bill was signed by Gov. Phil Murphy the next day.

The legislation, which applies only to this year's election, includes the requirement that early results stay confidential. Violating that confidentiality will be a third-degree crime.

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"The penalties, just like insider trading, have been ratcheted up and are significant," Murphy said during one of his frequent novel coronavirus briefings on Sept. 2. "And so you're faced with a very significant penalty, which includes a very significant potential jail time. And so to me, it is like insider trading in that respect. You may have knowledge but if you trade on that knowledge and you're convicted, you'll go to jail and you'll pay a big price."

State Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-25, told New Jersey the vote "is a bipartisan issue and it should have been handled in a bipartisan manner — and it wasn't.

Bucco said the legislation on casting ballots as the coronavirus pandemic wears on was amended right up until the Assembly and Senate voted on it.

"We should have had both Republican and Democrat input into how this process was going to work and I think in the end, we would have had better pieces of legislation and you might have had some form of in-person voting" Bucco said.

Under an executive order by Murphy, all registerd voters will receive mail-in ballots. Those who prefer to vote in person can come to polling places — at least one per municipality — and fill out paper ballots, which will be considered provisional until election officials verify the same person didn't already vote by mail. Voters with disabilities who need to use ADA-compliant machines will be able to do so.

A mailed ballot can then be dropped either in a mailbox or a secure ballot drop box. A completed ballot also can be submitted in-person at the County Board of Elections or at a voter's polling place on Election Day.

“Now that restrictions on indoor dining and going to the gym have been lifted, the voting booth is the only place that Governor Murphy is keeping off-limits,” Bucco said in a written statement after the legislation was passed.

Other states, including Florida, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware North Carolina and Texas, already allow mail-in ballots to be counted ahead of Election Day each year, by varying amounts of days.

In Florida for example, where President Donald Trump is a registered voter, counting of received mail-in ballots can begin 22 days before Election Day.

"I'm not saying it can't be done. But what I'm saying is, that it certainly opens the door for people to try to manipulate the vote," Bucco said.

New Jersey is among states with one-time regulations for the unusual circumstances of 2020, including some that allow for mail-in ballots to be processed, or put into tabulating machines, ahead of Election Day.

"Listen, voter fraud is a crime to begin with, but it still occurs," Bucco said.

He pointed to the May special election in Paterson carried out entirely by mail, where fraud charges were against four men. A do-over election is planned for November. Murphy, by contrast, has pointed to that as evidence mail-in balloting is secure — the alleged perpetrators were caught.

Over a 17-year span, there are 9 cases of voter fraud in New Jersey that ended with a criminal conviction, according to a database kept by The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank.

The same data showed no cases of voter fraud in New Jersey during the last presidential election and one case in 2012.

Bucco said the tremendous amount of mail-in ballots expected spurred the early count addition, and so the entire push for mail-in voting is driving the issue. He said that could have been easily avoided if the state allowed some other form of in-person, machine voting.

"Nobody wants to disenfranchise voters," Bucco said. "We want to make sure voters feel comfortable in the manner in which they're voting."

He continued: "At this point, I think, people are now concerned — and that should concern both parties."

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