TRENTON - Joanne Nyikita is all for early voting, just not the way it is set up in a bill sitting on the governor's desk.
Nyikita is superintendent of elections in Burlington County, and in the weeks before a presidential election, she says, she and her staff work 15-hour days, seven days a week, registering voters and making sure things run smoothly.
By in effect adding two weeks before the election during which voters can cast their ballots, she said, the state would vastly increase the work of already overstretched county election boards. Nyikita said that creating an electronic database for early-voting records would greatly lighten the load, but that there was no money for it.
"It could not be done every day for two weeks. It simply could not be done," said Nyikita, executive vice president of the New Jersey Association of Election Officials.
The group, made up of Republican and Democratic election officials, said that while it endorsed the concept of early elections, it was concerned that the program wouldn't work without adequate equipment and funding.
Fueled by the election-day disruptions caused by Hurricane Sandy, and a movement in many states to broaden voter access, the Legislature gave final approval last month to a bill that would require county election boards to provide for early voting for a two-week period before the election.
The measure passed along partisan lines, with Democrats saying the law is needed to provide access to voters who can't make it on Election Day, and Republicans insisting that the cost and security concerns outweigh potential advantages.
"This would expand access and, in an emergency like Sandy, people would still be able to cast their votes," said Nia Gill (D., Essex), Senate sponsor of the bill. "Our bill addresses a public-policy issue of more access to voting, and to deny access takes us backward, not forward, in terms of the democratic process."
John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), the lead Assembly sponsor of the bill, called questions about cost overblown.
Wisniewski maintained that county election officials can conduct two weeks of early voting by keeping records manually, just as they do now on Election Day. And he said he expected the Legislature to appropriate funds for that purpose. Electronic databases and expensive computer equipment, he said, are not necessary.
"It would be nice, but it is not needed," he said.
A spokesman for Gov. Christie, who has until May 13 to act on the legislation, said the governor's legal staff was evaluating the bill. The governor could sign the bill, veto it, or direct the Legislature to make changes that would result in its enactment.
The debate in New Jersey is part of a larger battle playing out across the country pitting Republicans against Democrats on how elections are conducted.
A total of 32 states offer some form of early voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Republicans have pushed so-called ballot security measures seeking to require voters to present photo identification, a policy that was put in place in Pennsylvania last year, but that was in effect halted by a federal judge.
Apart from going to court, Democrats have fought back against such measures with proposals of their own, most often by pushing for laws permitting early voting.
Democrats say early-voting laws reduce election-day bottlenecks - at some polling places in Florida and a handful of other states, people had to wait hours to cast their votes.
After the presidential election, some academic research suggested that long lines predominantly impacted heavily Democratic jurisdictions. Even so, Republicans have argued that early voting isn't needed on a national basis because the problems have been limited to only a handful of regions.
In March, President Obama established a nine-member election commission headed jointly by Ben Ginsberg, longtime Republican lawyer and University of Pennsylvania law graduate, and Bob Bauer, a veteran Democratic election lawyer, to study voter access and the issue of long lines at some polling places.
In New Jersey, the early-voting measure would require counties to establish anywhere from three to seven polling places, depending on their population density, for a total of 111 statewide.
Voting would take place from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.
The bill leaves open the question of how voting records would be kept. Opponents of the measure say that is a key unanswered question.
If the state decided to employ electronic databases, or poll books, to keep track of who voted, the cost the first year for the equipment would be $23 million, in addition to $2 million in annually recurring administrative costs, according to an analysis by the state Office of Legislative Services.
The records could be kept manually on paper, as they are now, but Nyikita of Burlington County said the work involved in updating paper records every day for two weeks would quickly overwhelm election staffs.
And, absent reliable record-keeping, it would be difficult and perhaps impossible to ward off fraud, said Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R., Somerset). Just as important are the cost issues in a financially strapped state that is still recovering from the recession.
Without early voting, voters still would have the option to file absentee ballots. Election officials say such ballots don't pose the same management problems, since there is already a system in place and it's easier to manage a flow of paper than of people.
"Nobody likes to wait in lines," Ciattarelli said. "However, if the lines bother anyone that much, they should vote by mail. Waiting in line is the least we can do to express our gratitude to those who cast their vote by sacrificing their lives."