This year’s vote-by-mail primary may wind up not only preventing the spread of COVID-19 but also boosting turnout. It will also increase the suspense over the winners.
Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday announced his decision that the election he already postponed until July 7 will be conducted primarily by mail, with most registered Democrats and Republicans automatically getting a ballot and everyone else registered receiving an application for a mail-in ballot.
And because the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted some postal service operations and led to delays in deliveries, Murphy is requiring that all ballots received up to a week after Election Day be counted. That means the results of contested congressional primaries in 10 of the state’s 12 districts, Cory Booker’s U.S. Senate seat, and a host of county and local races won’t be known until mid-July.
The change is likely to come with a high price tag that is, so far, unknown.
Mailing either a ballot or an application for a ballot with return postage paid to all 6.1 million registered voters will be costly — likely more than $9 million, based on recent estimates by the New Jersey Association of Counties. There will be some savings — counties won’t be printing or mailing sample ballots, for example. But there will be other expenses: Clerks will have to procure and place several secure ballot-drop boxes around their counties and at least one polling location in each municipality. Also, half the balloting spots in each county are to be open, and they will have to be stocked with provisional ballots, sanitizers and masks.
While Murphy’s executive order does not address the costs, it appears the state will cover at least some of the added expense from the $3.4 billion allotted to it in federal stimulus funds.
“It’s my understanding that the state will reimburse counties for the return postage on the VBM (vote-by-mail) ballots,” said John Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties. “I’m just not sure how to quantify the fiscal impact at the county level yet as the state is reimbursing some of the expenses under the CARES Act, some of the expenses under the recent VBM unfunded mandate law, and some elections expenses may even be reimbursable under FEMA — maybe.”
Counties to get vote-by-mail reimbursements
Counties won a battle with the state last year when the Council on Local Mandates declared expansions of vote-by-mail balloting in 2018 and 2019 to be unfunded mandates and, as such, invalid. To keep those intact, lawmakers passed and Murphy signed early this year a law creating a $3 million fund to reimburse counties for their costs.
Not every registered partisan will automatically get a VBM, only those considered “active” voters. Those on the “inactive” list — essentially those registered who have not voted in the last two federal elections — and unaffiliated residents, who would need to choose a party before casting a ballot, will get only an application for a VBM.
Monmouth County Clerk Christine Giordano Hanlon said last week that there are pluses and minuses to an all-VBM election, but what was most important was for Murphy to make a decision so the clerks could start the process of printing and mailing ballots and so county election officials could begin securing staff for polling places.
“If you have all VBM, clerks need to know,” she said. “Based on the last election, we have seen problems with mail being delivered, especially with apartment numbers. These people didn’t apply for a ballot. We’re just going on their voter registration. The more notice election officials have to get ready, the better.”
Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Morris) criticized Murphy’s plan as a “message of despair” that might be based on political consideration and another example of his continuing to govern by edict, rather than in cooperation with lawmakers.
“The curve has flattened and continues to flatten, but Murphy has given up on moving the state forward and returning to normalcy,” Pennacchio said. “July 7 is more than 50 days away, but in Murphy’s mind, the virus will still be controlling us and we will not have any semblance of normalcy returning to the state … He is a governor of executive orders and emergency declarations.”
Advocates have been pushing for more states to adopt vote by mail, both as a way to boost turnout and in current times to keep voters safe. California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced that the U.S.’s most populous state will conduct its November general election, including presidential balloting, by mail.
Mail-in balloting growing in popularity
As a whole, New Jerseyans have embraced mail-in balloting. In last year’s election, with state Assembly races topping the balloting, the more than 278,000 people who used mail-in ballots 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, when Superstorm Sandy forced many to use paper ballots (as well as provisional and online ballots) because they had to leave their homes due to widespread flooding and power outages.
But Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University, said the past might not prove prescient in this case.
“Turnout has much more to do with the existence of competitive races,” he said. “We only have two really competitive races going on in New Jersey this primary season: the third congressional district Republican race and the second congressional district Democratic race. In those areas, yes we should see increased turnout. But throughout the rest of the state? Probably not. The fact that the primary isn’t even happening in June as it usually does will also likely diminish turnout.”
Matt Hale, a professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University, said the parties and candidates will still need to get their supporters to vote if turnout is to improve. But the continuing presence of the novel coronavirus could impact the numbers of those who participate.
“At the end of the day, the primary elections in New Jersey this year are not likely to be high-turnout elections,” he said. “Strong partisans on both sides are going to be more likely to vote than those in the middle, who will be more worried about what to do with kids without camp or school over the summer.”
One polling place per municipality, provisional ballots
The system Murphy set up is even more complicated than the standard vote-by-mail process, though. In announcing the election change last Friday, the governor acknowledged evidence that some people don’t like mailing in their ballots and ordered that every municipality have at least one polling place open.
“While many voters have seamlessly transitioned to voting by mail, we know there are other voters who prefer to cast their ballot in person, in addition to voters with disabilities who cannot fill out a vote-by-mail ballot,” Murphy said. “For in-person voting, we plan to require at least one polling location to be opened in each municipality and social-distancing protocols will be enforced within these polling locations.”
Hale said handling the new system could prove problematic.
“Managing elections is never easy and this will place stress on a system that might not be ready for it,” he said.
However, the in-person voting spelled out by the order is not what voters are used to, but would be conducted by provisional ballot. Provisional balloting would be necessary so that no one could get two votes — one mailed in, the other cast in person — but county clerks and election officials have said that, in the past, some people get annoyed when not permitted to use a voting machine. It also requires additional time and effort for election workers to make sure that provisional balloters had not already mailed in votes.
One reason Murphy gave for in-person voting is to allow the disabled to cast ballots. The state piloted a mobile voting option for people with disabilities in the May 12 election, which was conducted entirely by VBM, but it is unclear how well this worked. The Secretary of State’s office has not responded to requests for comment about the process.
Online voting portal not widely used
Not advertised or widely promoted, the OmniBallot portal from Democracy Live was available to those who requested access through the county clerk’s office. Its availability was noted in ballots mailed to voters in the 32 communities in 10 counties that held municipal, school board or special elections last Tuesday, and on county clerks’ websites. At least one disability advocate praised the availability of the app, but at least three county clerks surveyed by NJTV News found no one requesting to use the portal.
The cost of this portal is still unknown, as the state still has not provided a copy of its contract with OmniBallot, requested May 5, despite a provision in the state’s Open Public Records Act that contracts are documents that should be provided immediately on request.
There’s also the requirement that each county place at least five secure drop boxes in accessible locations.
Some places, California among them, already use secure ballot-drop boxes for mail-in balloting, but to date in New Jersey, voters have typically had to go to the county clerk’s office if they wanted to drop off their ballots, rather than put them in the mail.
Murphy extended the deadline for the receipt of mail-in ballots to be counted from two days after the election to seven days, due to pandemic-related problems with mail delivery by the postal service. A number of issues arose with VBMs in Paterson’s municipal election last week, including ballots found bundled in a mailbox and the Passaic County clerk’s decision not to count 800 VBMs due to allegations of fraud. Short staffing in the mail postal facility in Kearny also has led to delays in mail delivery in parts of the state.
The governor said last Friday that he had spoken with the chief operating officer of the U.S. Postal Service “and walked through how important our partnership with the post office will be in this process, particularly in high-density, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. He assured me their full cooperation, and this is a partnership we want to see flourish in the months ahead.”
Murphy said the additional time is also needed just to count all the extra ballots.
“We will ensure that every vote is counted,” he said. “Our goals are twofold: to maximize our democracy while minimizing the risk of illness. We want everyone to participate in a safe and fully democratic process.”
Two nail-biters in South Jersey
But this will mean a delay in learning who has won in the myriad contested elections throughout the state. While many of the challenges to incumbent members of Congress are not expected to amount to much, there are two potential nail-biters in South Jersey that may not be decided until July 14.
While that may craze reporters and political junkies used to immediate results, Dworkin said that it’s not likely to matter to most people.
“The fact that we will have to wait for seven days to get results is really only an issue for those who want to celebrate on election night and now might not be able to do so with as much confidence that they won,” he said. “In effect, it just expands the number of elections we have each year that are ‘too close to call.’”
Julie Daurio of NJTV News contributed to this story.