NJ Primary Elections 2020: Your Guide to Voting by Mail or Voting in Person

For the first time ever, most New Jersey voters are expected to use a mail-in ballot. Get it right. Follow our step-by-step video guide
Credit: Vote by Mail New Jersey
A mail-in ballot

The July 7 primary will be unlike anything New Jersey has seen before.

Happening a month late and conducted primarily using mail-in ballots, this election is going to test voters’ skills at navigating different voting procedures and their patience in waiting for results that won’t be finalized for at least a week.

Gov. Phil Murphy is hoping most people will vote by mail to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at polling locations but there was alleged fraud in the May 12 election conducted totally by mail and there have been problems with the delivery of vote-by-mail ballots. Those who wish to vote in person will be able to do so, but that process will be different, too.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker is on the ballot, facing Democratic challenger Lawrence Hamm, and there is a five-way race for the Republican senatorial nomination. Primaries are contested in one or both of the major parties in 10 of the state’s 12 races for the House of Representatives. Information about all congressional races is available on NJ Spotlight’s elections page. County and municipal party nominations throughout the state are also up for grabs.

Because New Jersey has never faced a situation quite like this one, there are a lot of unknowns. One is how many people are likely to vote. Fewer people vote in primaries, even in years when the presidential race tops the ballot because New Jersey’s late primary means those nominations typically are already decided by Election Day here. Two years ago, 700,000 New Jerseyans voted. Whether fewer people will vote because there is less of a focus on the campaigns due to the coronavirus pandemic or if more will vote because a ballot was delivered to their door remains to be seen.

To help people cast votes and ensure their votes are counted, here is a guide to voting in the primary.

This is how to vote by mail

Last month, Murphy announced that counties will automatically send a mail-in ballot to most of the state’s almost 3.7 million registered Democrats and Republicans. All active voters — generally those who have voted in at least one of the last two federal elections — should have received a ballot by now, although there have been some glitches that may have delayed the delivery of ballots in limited locations.

Unaffiliated voters should have received an application for a ballot. In New Jersey, only those who are registered with one of the major parties can vote in primary elections. Unaffiliated voters willing to declare a party preference can get a mail-in ballot for that party by returning the application.

Voters who have not yet gotten a ballot should contact their county election officials.

It’s likely tens of thousands of voters are filling out a mail-in ballot for the first time. People should be aware that this process is not as easy as it might seem.

Many county clerks and election officials have posted online tutorials that walk voters through the vote-by-mail process using sample ballots; each county designs its own ballot, so these look a little different in each county.

There are a few key points to remember when completing and returning a mail-in ballot:

  • A voter needs to place a completed ballot in the internal envelope that came in the ballot packet. This envelope has a certificate attached that a voter needs to fill out and sign. This certificate must remain attached to the envelope and it must be signed or there is a risk the vote will not count. The internal envelope also must be sealed.
  • The internal envelope must be placed inside the external envelope that is pre-addressed and postage paid. This envelope also must be sealed. If someone else delivers a ballot to the county board of elections, that person is allowed by law to deliver only three ballots, in addition to his own. If a person tries to deliver more ballots, those ballots are likely to be rejected.
  • All ballots sent by mail must be postmarked by Election Day. Ballots delivered by hand to county election officials or to one of at least five secure drop boxes in each county must be delivered before polls close at 8 p.m. on July 7. Drop box locations can be found here.

Why ballots can be rejected

There are more than a dozen reasons why election officials would reject a mail-in ballot. In the May 12 special elections in more than 30 municipalities, about 10% of ballots went uncounted. On Thursday, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced charges of voting fraud against Paterson City Councilman Michael Jackson, a councilman-elect and two other men in connection with the city’s special election. It’s unclear exactly how many of more than 3,000 rejected Paterson ballots were alleged to have been fraudulent. Eliminating Paterson from the totals, a still larger-than-usual 8% of mail-in ballots were rejected statewide.

The ballot certificate should not be removed.

Problems related to the ballot certificate — it was detached from its envelope, not filled out completely or not signed — are among the most common reasons for ballot rejections. The signature on the certificate not matching the one on file is another, but the state has agreed to make several changes for the July 7 primaries that should reduce the number of rejections for this reason.

Those voters whose ballots are in question due to a signature issue will be notified by county election officials within 24 hours of the decision to potentially reject their ballot. They will be sent a form to complete, attesting that they had indeed sent in the ballot. Provided they return that form along with proof of identity, by July 23, the ballot is to be counted.

The state does provide a way for voters to check whether their vote counted following an election, as well as their entire voter history. To use the public access site, a voter must provide his name and voter ID — listed on the mail-in ballot — or driver’s license number or partial Social Security number.

Voting in person

Want to vote in person?

Those who want to be able to vote in person will be able to do so, but they too are going to have a different experience.

For starters, voters might not be able to use their normal polling location. At least one polling place will be open in every town. Because voters got mail-in ballots, they will not receive the sample ballot that they normally do, which lists the polling location. NJ Spotlight has a searchable database of all the polling places by municipality and voting district or ward. Those who don’t know their ward should be able to find that information on the mail-in ballot they received or look it up on the state’s polling place search page or contact county elections officials.

On arriving at the polls, voters may be disappointed to learn that they will not be able to vote by machine. All but those with disabilities will be required to fill out a provisional paper ballot instead. The reason for that is to ensure that no one can vote twice; since most voters will have received a mail-in ballot, election officials will need to make sure that those who go to the polls in person have not already voted by mail. The use of provisional ballots will allow officials to check that a mail-in ballot for an individual had not already been counted.

Those who go to vote in person will need to wear a mask and practice social distancing; poll workers will also be required to frequently wash their hands and sanitize surfaces.

Expect delayed results

Forget about knowing early who wins next Tuesday night: All these changes mean there will be no final results for more than a week after the polls close.

Because of problems with postal delivery for the May 12 election, which led to more than 2,000 ballots going uncounted, Murphy has extended the deadline for county election officials to receive ballots and still count them from two days after polls close to seven days later. His hope is that those additional five days will be ample time for all ballots mailed near or on July 7 to be delivered for counting.

Several county elections officials said they plan to begin counting mail-in ballots received before Election Day after the polls have opened, as they traditionally do. That means some results should be available on July 7, but they will need to continue to be updated through July 14.

That’s when officials will begin to count provisional ballots. The volume of these will depend on how many voters choose to vote in person and how long it takes to update results. The more provisional ballots are cast, the longer it will take for officials to count them.

Finally, close races could hinge on disputed ballots and these may not be decided until as late as July 23. Voters will be able to fix a signature issue regardless of whether they cast a mail-in or provisional ballot.

Given all the confusion and new processes, it would not be surprising to see legal challenges of ballot rejections and election results in close races up and down the ballot.