TRENTON - Saying the measure would overwhelm local election workers, Gov. Christie vetoed Thursday a bill that would have required polls to open two weeks before Election Day.
The bill won final passage in the Assembly on March 21. It would have required that each county open a limited number of polling places in advance of the election.
Democrats touted the measure as a way to increase voter participation; Republicans panned it as a costly initiative that would add little in the way of expanded access for voters.
Christie said the early-voting plan would have made the system less reliable.
"I support responsible and cost-efficient election reform that increases voter participation because democracy works best when the most people vote," he said in his veto message. "This bill risks the integrity and orderly administration of elections by introducing a new voting method and process."
Christie said that in effect, the state already has an early-voting option with mail-in ballots that voters can send in beginning 45 days in advance of an election. About 300,000 mail-in ballots were cast in New Jersey in the last presidential election.
Democrats said the veto closed off an option that would have increased voter participation.
"The governor's rejection of this legislation is out of step with the majority of states in the nation and out of touch with New Jersey's hardworking families," said Sen. Nia Gill (D., Essex), a sponsor. "Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia provide for early in-person voting, and as a result of the veto, our residents' access to the polls will be restricted to only one day."
Perhaps reflecting Christie's national stature and the high-profile nature of voter-access issues in last year's presidential race, the governor's veto drew criticism from the national Democratic Governors Association.
"By vetoing an early voting bill in New Jersey today, Chris Christie joined the ranks of shameless Republican governors restricting voting rights for partisan political gain," said a statement.
In New Jersey, the legislation was opposed by Republican and Democratic county election officials, who said adding two weeks of voting would overwhelm election boards that already are stretched on Election Day.
The New Jersey Association of Election Officials, in testimony on the measure, said creating digital voting records with so-called electronic poll books, laptops, or other computer devices that carry voter-registration records would greatly lighten the load, and make such a system more functional. But there was no money for that.
The New Jersey debate is part of a national battle over early-voting laws that reached a crescendo during the presidential election last year. Republicans have pushed for so-called ballot security measures such as photo ID to protect against fraud, while Democrats have urged that polls be opened before Election Day.
After the election, some academic research suggested that heavily Democratic jurisdictions were most affected by long lines. Republicans have argued that early voting is not the answer on a national basis and say the problems have been limited to a handful of regions.
In March, President Obama established a nine-member election commission headed jointly by Ben Ginsberg, a longtime Republican lawyer, and Bob Bauer, a Democratic election lawyer, to study voter access.
The state Office of Legislative Services estimated that deployment of electronic polling books would carry a one-time equipment cost of $23 million and $2 million annually in recurring administrative costs. The cost also was a problem for the governor.
"Taxpayers should not have to foot a more than $25 million bill to pay for a hasty, counterproductive, and less reliable system, especially when New Jersey's current early voting process is reliable and cost-effective," the governor said.