TRENTON — Democratic lawmakers this week passed a hastily written bill that signs up more registered voters to automatically receive vote-by-mail ballots for all elections.

State law had already been changed last year to provide vote-by-mail ballots for all future elections to people who requested mail-in ballots for the 2016 presidential election. The new bill, which Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to sign, expands it to include people who applied to vote by mail in 2017 and 2018.

The sessions were unusual in that there isn’t typically legislative activity in late August – though this did mark the second straight year with voting sessions in the week leading up to Labor Day.

Republicans said Democrats pushed the proposal because it gives them a political advantage and criticized Democrats for not acting on topics important to voters such as property taxes.

“Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, there’s no voter in this state who thinks we should return to Trenton on an emergency basis and not deal with some of the issues that our voters and our residents are facing,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union.

“One thing is clear today, that when the majority party of this Legislature wants to take action on an issue, you will do so quickly and to the extent that you see fit,” said Assemblyman Anthony Bucco, R-Morris.

Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, D-Camden, said the legislation “is about increasing voter participation, which is the greatest democratic principle that we can have.”

“And that means by whichever means gets the greatest voter participation is what we should be supporting,” Greenwald said.

The bill, S4069, was introduced late Friday afternoon, bypassed the typical committee hearings and approved in party-line votes of 22-10 in the Senate Monday and 45-14 in the Assembly Tuesday.

Roughly one-fourth of the Legislature didn’t attend the abbreviated voting sessions, which were scheduled with just a few days’ notice and lasted 10 minutes apiece.

The number of New Jerseyans voting by mail has been increasing steadily and topped 400,000 in the 2018 congressional midterm elections, accounting for one of every eight votes cast.

Vote-by-mail ballots will begin being mailed out on Sept. 21, 45 days before the election. The deadline to apply for one, for people not sent one automatically, is Oct. 29 by mail or Nov. 4 in-person.

People can opt out of automatic vote-by-mail status by notifying their county clerk.

People who receive vote-by-mail ballots but don’t use them and instead show up at their polling place are asked to complete a provisional paper ballot, which is counted after county officials confirm that a person didn’t earlier vote by mail.

The bill provides $2 million to reimburse counties for the costs of implementing the law.

The New Jersey Association of Counties filed a complaint over the 2018 law with the state Council on Local Mandates seeking to have the vote-by-mail expansion invalidated. Arguments in the matter were heard in July.

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