Murphy Pushes Primaries Back to July 7, Citing Voter Health, Time to Set Up Mail Ballots If Needed

Decision draws bipartisan approval. Since candidates can’t campaign because of statewide public-health emergency, no individuals likely to benefit from decision
Credit: Edwin J. Torres/Governor's Office
Gov. Murphy holds coronavirus briefing in Newark

New Jersey will still have the latest federal election primary this year, at least at the moment, even with Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement that he is moving the date until July 7 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At least five states, including New York, had already decided to move their presidential and congressional primaries until after June 2, which was supposed to be the date of New Jersey’s election. With the Democratic and Republican primaries always scheduled for the first Tuesday of June, New Jersey winds up being the last state to choose candidates for president every four years. New York and Kentucky had both postponed their primaries until June 23.

Gov. Phil Murphy went further, rescheduling New Jersey’s primary two weeks later, for July 7. He signed an executive order on Wednesday changing the date and said no legislative action was needed to do so. He said he chose that late date because he would like people to be able to vote in person, if possible, and if not, to have plenty of time to conduct a statewide mail-in ballot election, which New Jersey has not done previously.

“Our democracy cannot be a casualty of COVID-19,” he said. “We want to ensure that every voter could vote without endangering their health or their safety.”

Choosing between voting and health

Murphy, who said he made the change after consulting with both political parties, added that he does not want to create a situation like the one in Wisconsin on Tuesday, “where folks had to pick between exercising their right to vote on the one hand and protecting their own personal health.”

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers was thwarted first by his state’s Supreme Court and then the U.S. Supreme Court in his attempt to allow for a fully vote-by-mail election. As a result, many voters may have been disenfranchised, according to news reports. FiveThirtyEight reported voters waiting as long as three hours in Green Bay, which could open just two polling places due to a lack of workers, instead of the 31 it normally has. Some 1.3 million voters, 38% of all those registered, had requested an absentee ballot, but with that large volume, some were not sent or received by voters in time.

“In terms of democracy, it’s an excellent idea based on what we saw in Wisconsin,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, commenting on Murphy’s decision.

Matt Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University, agreed.

“I think the elections had to be moved for safety and because of that it is the right thing to do,” he said. “But given the party lines are already set, I don’t think it will make a big difference in the outcome.”

In New Jersey, the candidate who receives the county line — the backing of a county’s Democratic or Republican committee — has an advantage because primaries attract more of the party faithful and the unaffiliated cannot vote unless they choose a party on election day.

Bipartisan support for Murphy’s move

Candidates from both parties, including those running against one another, also praised Murphy’s decision.

“It is clear Gov. Murphy’s thoughtful decision was done collaboratively with both health experts and party leaders,” said Brigid Harrison, who is one of five candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in the sprawling southernmost 2nd District, where Rep. Jeff Van Drew switched to the Republican Party last December. “Unlike other states, which we have seen in recent days, it is clear his priority is both the health and safety of voters, while also fully ensuring the greatest participation in our electoral process … It is now important that everyone possible makes their voices heard on July 7th.”

Harrison’s main opponent, Amy Kennedy, agreed, saying, “No one likes to see an election postponed, but protecting people’s health while making sure we safeguard the democratic process is always the right thing to do.”

“Bob (Patterson) believes the governor should do whatever is necessary to make sure people can vote and make their voices heard in a safe way,” said Nachama Soloveichik, spokeswoman for Patterson, who is challenging Van Drew for the GOP nomination. “In these difficult times, Bob has been spending his time calling voters every day, and we are happy to have another month to keep the calls going.”

It is unclear whether the delay will give any candidate an edge. Murphy has said repeatedly he does not want candidates campaigning door-to-door and many candidates have adapted their strategies, moving heavily to telephone calls and virtual discussions with potential voters.

“It gives candidates more time to raise money, but we really don’t know how much more time they will actually get to campaign, depending on when we start returning to normal,” Murray said. “Since incumbents already have the inside track in any contested primaries anyway, I don’t think this has any real impact either way.  It could impact the few competitive local races where shoe-leather door-knocking efforts are staples.”

Depending on how far — or even whether — the state is into a recovery from COVID-19, it may be hard to get some voters to care about the election.

“At the end of the day, people are going to be more worried about jobs and food on the table than primary elections,” Hale said. “That means incumbents should benefit because insurgents need bigger turnouts.”

While holding the election right after the July 4 holiday weekend might not be ideal, Murphy said his decision was in part based on keeping roughly the same amount of time between the primary and the Democratic National Convention, rescheduled for Aug. 17, before the party postponed that event.

Buying time

“We’ve bought ourselves a significant number of weeks here,” Murphy said. “My hope is that we are through this crisis, that we’ve begun to get back on our feet and we can, with simple … social distancing guidelines that can work with polling stations” conduct an in-person vote on July 7.

Still, Murphy added that he has not ruled out a potential full mailed-ballots primary, but “happily, that is not a decision we need to make now.”

The number of mail-in ballots requested so far in New Jersey was not available, but county clerks were reporting last week that they had seen an increase in requests. More than 111,000 people, or almost 23% of all those who voted, cast their ballots by mail in last year’s primary, a record for a New Jersey primary.

Every year, some complain that by voting last in the nation, New Jersey does not have a say in the parties’ presidential nominees. Had Murphy kept the primary at June 2, that still would not have happened, given the decision by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to drop out of the Democratic presidential race on Wednesday, leaving former Vice President Joe Biden the only viable candidate remaining.

Last month’s candidate filings saw contests that involve either one or both of the major parties in nearly all districts, as well as the battle for Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s seat. Five Republicans and two Democrats, including Booker, filed for the senate race and as of Wednesday night there were 53 running in the state’s 12 congressional districts. Today is the date county officials will draw candidates’ names to determine their placement on the ballot, and at least some officials plan to livestream these draws.

Some other dates related to the election are also changing. The biggest two are the deadline for filing to run as an independent in the general election, which was moved to 4 p.m. on July 7, and the deadline for a voter to change party affiliation, which was postponed from yesterday to May 13.