More than 230,000 New Jerseyans voted before Halloween this year using mail-in ballots that continue to gain popularity across the state — a trend that could change future campaign strategies.
In total, the more than 278,000 people who used mail-in ballots this year was about 1½ times greater than in 2015, the last time the Assembly topped the ticket and all previous elections except for the 2012 presidential race. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy forced many to use paper ballots because they had to leave their homes due to widespread flooding and power outages.
While the state Division of Elections has yet to publish turnout figures from the Nov. 5 election, the percentage of votes cast using mail-in ballots is likely to exceed last year’s 12.3%, which was a record high.
An NJ Spotlight analysis of a state database of mail-in ballots through Nov. 13, which should include all those cast, found that more than eight in 10 people who voted by mail (VBM) sent in their ballot by the end of October. Only about 13,000, or 4% of all VBMs, arrived after Election Day. (Ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by county officials within 48 hours after polls close are counted.)
Campaign strategists have already begun to use VBM data in determining their get-out-the-vote efforts. Using the state’s database, they can see who got ballots and who returned them, which helps them decide whose doors to knock on for Election Day and whose doors to ignore.
Two recent state laws that automatically send ballots to prior mail-in voters, unless they opt out, has created a large pool of potential people who may vote in lower-interest elections that they used to skip. It is so much easier to mail in a ballot — close to 600,000, or one in 10 of those registered in New Jersey, got a VBM this year. It’s also possible for them to vote early. The first VBMs were returned Sept. 19, and close to 13% of those who used a mail-in ballot this year sent it back in September, more than a month before Election Day.
Early-bird mailers, robocalls
That could mean voters may get earlier mailers and robocalls.
“The timing of when VBM ballots are returned will have strategic implications on when campaign resources are deployed,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “Were I managing a campaign, I’d put together targeted, boutique communications to the universe of permanent VBM voters, which could be timed around when those voters return ballots rather than Election Day.”
Benjamin Dworkin, director of the Rowan University Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said the very early voters are likely true partisans who already know they will vote Democratic or Republican. But there is no doubt political operatives will be using vote-by-mail data in designing campaign strategies.
“It could be found money for a party” toward the end of a campaign, he said. “It could help reduce the overall get out the vote effort. It allows each party to head into Election Day having a much better assessment of where the race stands.”
Democrats dominate voter rolls in New Jersey, and political observers say the party has been savvy about using VBMs. It is not surprising, then, that far more Democrats than Republicans got mail-in ballots — 276,000 versus 150,000, respectively. However, GOP voters used their ballots at a higher rate than Democrats: 56.4% of Republicans returned their VBMs, compared with 51% of Democrats.
“My guess is that Democrats are one or two cycles ahead of Republicans,” said Matthew Hale, a professor of political science at Seton Hall University. “Democrats may have lower overall response rates because they have expanded beyond strong partisans to the mild partisans. The Republicans’ VBM operation is likely catching up on their strong partisan lists but have not yet reached their mild ones. In an off-year low turnout election like this one where most voters are the partisan ones, it makes sense that Democrats have lower return rates.”
More data needed
Dworkin said that New Jersey is still in its infancy in VBM becoming an accepted voting method, with several more years of data needed to find real trends.
“It’s an easier way of voting,” he said. “Right now, it’s just a guess whether it helps one party or another. We will have to see whether it makes a real difference over time.”
All the discussion about VBMs could be moot, however, unless lawmakers and Gov. Phil Murphy give county officials the money needed to prepare, mail out and count the ballots.
Last Friday, the Council on Local Mandates agreed with a NJ Association of Counties complaint that the two changes in VBM laws over the last 16 months constitute unfunded mandates, and so are no longer mandatory. Those laws required county clerks to automatically send a VBM ballot to all those who had voted by mail in the 2016, 2017 or 2018 elections. Those legal changes are what boosted the number of vote-by-mail ballots sent out — county clerks issued more than 437,000 new VBM ballots in 2018 and 2019, according to NJAC — and the VBM turnout.
While neither Murphy nor legislative leaders have weighed in on what to do next given the council’s ruling, political observers expect the Democrats to take some action to provide funding to continue the wider mailing out of ballots.
“I would expect it to be a priority to get the new law in place before the primary, and I would expect the fix bill to be closely patterned after the most recent procedures,” Rasmussen said. “Everyone should be sensitive to the fact that the expansion of VBM has had rocky rollouts over the past few years, and should want to avoid adding another layer of confusing new protocols. I am hopeful that in order to maximize voter participant and ‘turnout’ — the Governor and Legislature may include the best practice that some but not all county clerks are employing, which is to provide postage-paid envelopes statewide. This would cost more, but not a lot when you consider the number of total VBMs returned.”
Hale agreed: “The bang for the buck from VBM for parties is just so much greater than traditional ways of organizing.”