For the first time in a number of years in New Jersey, it’s likely that the winner of one or more of the high-profile races — U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez’s seat and House races in the close 3rd, 7th and 11th districts — will not be known by the end of the night. That’s because polls are showing that a handful of congressional races are very close and a recent law changed the process for mail-in balloting.
Two changes in the vote by mail process embodied in the law Gov. Phil Murphy signed on August 10 are likely to delay the final count of all ballots until at least Thursday and perhaps as late as next week. Sponsors of the law said it was designed to make it easier for people to vote, but county clerks say it has already created confusion and is likely to lead to more. One provision of the law is expected to lead to the casting of large numbers of provisional ballots that will need to be counted in the coming days, while another allows ballots postmarked today to be counted provided they are received by the clerks no later than Thursday.
“It’s nuts,” said Hunterdon County Clerk Mary Melfi in reference to this year’s vote by mail balloting as she worked early Saturday afternoon in Flemington processing early in-person votes — essentially vote by mail ballots processed in person. “It’s comparable to Hurricane Sandy.”
In 2012, when Sandy hit just days before the presidential election, widespread power outages left typical polling locations without power and those outages, as well as flooding and other damage, drove thousands out of their homes — sometimes out of state — leading to an increased use of provisional ballots, mail-in ballots and even emailed or faxed ballots.
At the same time, this year’s elections are drawing a higher level of interest than usual for midterm elections, so there may be more ballots cast at the polls, in addition to a record number of mail-in ballots.
The issue: mail-in ballots
“I’ve never seen a midterm election with so much interest and involvement,” said Scott Colabella, the clerk in Ocean County and president of the Constitutional Officers Association of New Jersey. “It’s similar to a presidential year,” he said.
Higher levels or interest are being driven at least in part by the strong feelings arising out of the 2016 presidential election. In New Jersey, President Donald Trump is widely unpopular, and that has led to highly competitive races in districts long held by Republicans. Following the 2016 election, a number of citizen groups grew up around the state. Some have tried to stay nonpartisan and work to drum up interest and support in general for the democratic process and for learning about issues. One of these, NJ-7 Votes, took a unique approach to try to encourage early voting over the weekend, rewarding Saturday voters in Hunterdon, Somerset and Union counties with coffee and treats. Early voting, in this case, meant dropping off mail-in ballots by midday Monday.
Melfi said she had issued about 13,000 vote by mail ballots through Saturday in a county with around 99,000 registered voters. While not everyone who requests a mail-in ballot returns it, the rate of return is high. Last year, Hunterdon’s 48 percent voter turnout included some 3,700 mailed ballots. In the 2016 presidential election, the overall turnout was 75 percent, with more than 8,900 having voted by mail.
As of Monday, roughly 558,000 New Jerseyans had been sent ballots, almost four times the number who got them in 2014. A survey of a half-dozen counties found a return rate of about 58 percent through Monday.
No idea how many late ballots to expect
But due to the change in the law, voters will be able to vote by mail as late as today, as long as their ballots are postmarked today and received by the clerk no later than Thursday. Because this is the first time this procedure will be in effect, the clerks have no idea how many late ballots to expect.
“I’m sure we’re going to have some late ballots,” said Colabella. “We don’t know how many … Most, if not all, counties won’t have all the vote by mail totals on Tuesday night.”
Another change in the law that is expected to cause problems at the polls is the requirement that all county clerks had to send a mail-in ballot to all those who voted by mail in 2016 — unless the voters opted out of getting the ballot. But voters only had one week to reject the ballot due to the timing of the law. Thousands across the state did opt out; five counties reported that, on average, 20 percent of those who voted by mail in 2016 declined to receive a mail-in ballot this year. But many more thousands received them. Colabella and other clerks suspect many voters wound up getting unwanted ballots in the mail and will show up at the polls, where they will have to vote by a provisional ballot, rather than in the machine. Provisional ballots often are not counted until days after the election.
“We are expecting an increase in provisional ballots,” he said. “Is that going to be a huge number? We don’t know.”
Melfi is concerned that many of the 4,000 people in Hunterdon County who voted in 2016 with a mail-in ballot — and did not opt out of getting one this year — are going to wind up trying to vote in person. They will be told they can’t use a machine and have to fill out a provisional ballot. She’s worried they may choose not to do so.
“My theory is they are going to just walk out and get disenfranchised,” she said.
Record number of mail-in ballots requested
On the other hand, Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi told NJTV she thinks people who took the trouble to visit a polling place will feel determined enough to vote. “I suspect there will be thousands and thousands (of provisional ballots), because many people that got an absentee forgot that they got it, or put it aside,” she said. That could lead to a delay in learning who won in some races, added Rajoppi, saying, “You may not have the answer until the following week at least.”
New Jersey has several close congressional races this year — at least two have polled within the margin of error.
What is known is that the number of mail-in ballots requested this year has set a record in New Jersey. Nationwide, that’s been the case, as well. However, it’s unclear whether that will mean an overall higher turnout than usual. In the last midterm election, in 2014, 36 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
“If the turnout is 500,000 more than in the last midterm, that’s a big deal,” said Benjamin Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University. “Or is it just a shift from having to stand on line on Tuesday. We don’t know yet.”
There have been a number of efforts to get more people to vote this year, including the one by NJ-7 Votes over the weekend.
‘Bagels and Ballots’
Elycia Lerman of Lambertville stood at the curb on Main Street in Flemington Saturday morning outside the Hunterdon County Clerk’s office with a sign alerting motorists and passing pedestrians they could vote, and inviting those who did to cross the street for coffee and a snack. The effort was dubbed “Bagels and Ballots.”
“I’m doing this because I believe in democracy,” said Lerman, who had spray painted her hair blue and purple and wore red, white and blue beads. “I believe in the principles of the America I grew up in, an America that was diverse, welcoming and where all people have rights.”
Lerman said she had taken democracy and government for granted for most of her life but decided a few years ago she needed to get involved to try to make things better.
“Our democracy is really, really broken,” she said.
Get-out-the-vote efforts will continue today. Canvassers will also be knocking on doors in some parts of the state, reminding people to vote. And ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber are offering free or reduced-cost rides to the polls, depending on how far away a person lives.
The polls are open across the state from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. A number of apps and websites, including Vote.org, can help a person find his polling place. Anyone who is denied the right to vote can go to court — where judges will be available throughout the day to hear challenges — or contact Election Protection at 1-866-OUR-VOTE .