New Jersey’s leaders need to heed the warnings from Georgia’s primary election debacle to avoid our own.
A surge in voters trying to vote by mail, fewer in-person polling stations, and laws that enshrine voter suppression in Georgia’s electoral DNA combined into a perfect storm of long lines, uncounted ballots, and furious residents.
New Jersey doesn’t engage in the same kind of state-sponsored voter suppression as Georgia, but we could be headed toward our own primary election failure on July 7 unless elected leaders take action and learn from the lessons of last month’s elections.
New reporting shows that an unprecedented one in every ten people who mailed in ballots in the May 12 local elections had their ballots rejected. According to NJ Spotlight, this could “forebode the potential disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of New Jerseyans in next month’s primaries.”
To be clear, the problem is NOT vote-by-mail. Increasing mail-in balloting is one of — if not the most — important actions that New Jersey can take to create a more equitable voting system. Studies have shown that allowing people to vote by mail, from the comfort of their own homes, is hands down the best way to increase voter turnout. In Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, every voter receives a vote-by-mail ballot for each election. In fact, these three “vote-at-home” states produced the highest turnout of all in the 2016 general elections — 81% on average.
However, voting by mail does bring up additional issues that need to be addressed for the system to work effectively and equitably.
The signature issue
Gov. Murphy and the Legislature should pass legislation to remedy the greatest cause of rejected ballots: signature matching. Nearly 25% of ballot rejections in last month’s local elections were due to signatures that were not an exact match. The overwhelming majority of these cases are simply an error on the voter’s part — if not a lack of training of local officials in handwriting recognition — which is why more than a dozen states provide voters with the ability to correct their signature and confirm their vote. New Jersey should implement the Colorado model, which notifies voters with signature issues by mail and gives them the opportunity to confirm to the county clerk that they indeed did vote by mail.
We are encouraged by a recent settlement in which the Secretary of State agreed to give voters the chance to confirm their vote if their ballot is disqualified in the July 7 primary election. We call on the Legislature to codify these procedures into law for all future elections as well.
Additionally, legislators should pass — and Gov. Murphy should sign — A-3591/S-2547, bills filed by Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker and Sen. Vin Gopal, which would allocate state funding to educate residents on how to correctly vote by mail, and give county election officials standards to use in determining whether to accept or reject ballots as well as prohibit the rejection of ballots that were insufficiently sealed due to an envelope’s glue.
Finally, the United State Postal Service, particularly in low-income communities like Newark, must take great responsibility for ensuring ballots are delivered directly to voters’ homes and that they are also returned before the deadline.
Project Ready — the nonprofit which I lead — has received complaints from residents of apartment complexes whose ballots were dumped in a pile in an entryway, rather than placed in their mailboxes last month. We’ve also heard from dozens of residents who received their ballots just days before the deadline for returning them, and some who left their ballots to be picked up, only for their postal carrier to skip their house. In one instance, a Newark post office closed early for the day on the deadline to return ballots.
We know postal workers are going above and beyond during the coronavirus pandemic, and we’re deeply thankful for their work. However, we hope the Post Office will put in place clearer standards and more accountability for workers around election time — as postal carriers are now critical agents of our democracy.
Voting by mail has proven to increase turnout, but there are flaws in our system that we cannot ignore. If 10% of ballots are rejected, it will raise questions about equity in voting, and undermine this good system. Let’s act now — beginning with these three steps — to make sure every vote is counted on July 7 and New Jersey avoids Georgia’s fate as a cautionary tale for the rest of the country.