Atlantic County freeholders voted unanimously Tuesday afternoon to lease for $47,300 a large office space for the Board of Elections, where dozens of workers will process an anticipated large number of vote-by-mail ballots for the Nov. 3 election.
The elections board recently announced it received a grant of about $150,000 for extra costs related to the general election from a private nonprofit, and expects it to cover the rent and more.
Right after the freeholder meeting, the elections board held its own meeting where it discussed possibly purchasing new equipment to help process ballots, and a lift truck to transport vote-by-mail ballots from drop box locations, but decided more research is needed.
Democratic elections board Clerk Bill Sacchinelli said the state is requiring the use of drop boxes in all future elections, and that any municipality with more than 7,000 residents must have a drop box installed. He said the cost of new required drop boxes should also be covered by the grant.
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The elections board must spend the full amount of the grant by Dec. 31 or return unspent funds, said Republican elections board Clerk Sue Sandman.
At the freeholder meeting, new Chair Maureen Kern said she expected the elections board to turn over paperwork regarding the grant funds to the county at one of its next two meetings. The grant will help the county pay for extra expenses for this election, which are the result of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Board of Elections Chair Lynn Caterson said the Mays Landing location was chosen for election workers because it is a third-floor space that will not have anyone walking through it other than elections staff; it is just five minutes from the board offices on Main Street, parking is free and security there is tight.
“The IRS is on the first floor,” Caterson said.
She said the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority had offered free space at the Atlantic City Convention Center, but staff would have to pay for parking, which is run by a separate entity, and the space is not set up for offices. That means the elections board would have to wire the space using union workers at the convention center, likely erasing any savings.
The contract for the roughly 12,000 square feet of contiguous office space runs from Sept. 20 to Dec. 15, according to the resolution that passed. The property, at 5218 Atlantic Ave. in Mays Landing, is owned by 5218 Property LLC of Brooklyn, New York.
There also will be extra expenses related to equipping the building with phone and internet service needed so the board can access the Statewide Voter Registration System while processing ballots. The board also is hiring more than twice the usual number of ballot-processing temporary workers and has spent thousands of dollars on new computers and work stations and locked ballot security carts for this election.
Freeholder John Risley blamed the need to rent space on Gov. Phil Murphy and his order making the Nov. 3 general election mostly vote-by-mail. That order will force Atlantic County alone to process and count an estimated 120,000-140,000 paper ballots.
Only people with disabilities will be allowed to use the voting machines at polling places. Everyone else must either vote by mail or fill out a paper provisional ballot at the polls.
County Executive Dennis Levinson said last week he had offered space in the old Criminal Courthouse in Mays Landing, in front of and above the offices of the elections board and other county offices. But the space spans several rooms on different floors and areas of the building that also contains other county offices.
Caterson said the old courthouse does not meet the board’s needs, but she would have welcomed a gym at Atlantic Cape Community College or space in a county warehouse. However, the college declined and the warehouses were full.
“The total space (offered) does not come up with what we anticipate needing,” Caterson said of the old courthouse. “Secondly, we’d be talking about carrying ballots room to room, down hallways and up and down elevators” and mixing with members of the public.