It’s Primary Day, With a Viral Twist

Amid the pandemic, most ballots will be cast by mail, and the process of tallying the results is likely to be a drawn-out affair
A vote-by-mail ballot for today’s primary elections.

It’s the pandemic version of primary election day in New Jersey and while voting ends at 8 p.m. Tuesday, the counting of ballots is just beginning. The all-but-decided presidential primaries top balloting this year, followed by one U.S. Senate seat, all dozen House seats, a couple of unexpired state legislative seats and county and local offices.

While it may be possible to call elections that are uncontested or where challengers did not mount much of a campaign, it could be weeks before the final results of hotly contested races — such as in South Jersey’s 2nd and 3rd Congressional Districts — are known. County clerks are required to complete final election counts by July 24 and some may need that long.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said the timing of results is going to depend on how quickly county elections officials can process the tens of thousands of mail-in ballots they have gotten back, and how many New Jerseyans procrastinated and waited until Election Day to submit ballots or went to the polls to vote in person.

“It depends on how many ballots arrive by tomorrow and how many people each county has on hand to process them,” Murray said. “If they can process all the ballots received by the end of the day, we should know all but the close races. However, that is a huge ‘if.’”

Unprecedented process

Never before has New Jersey conducted an election primarily by mail. To date, the largest number of mail-in ballots cast was in the 2018 congressional midterms, when more than 400,000 voters submitted mail-in ballots that November. Primaries tend to have lower turnouts — nearly 21% of registered Democrats and Republicans voted in person and by mail in June 2018.

But this year, some 3 million registered party members automatically received a mail-in ballot and were urged to use it instead of going to the polls as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19. Another 2 million got an application to request a ballot.

Still, nearly 17,000 polling locations will be open across the state, at least one per municipality. The state’s polling place locator has been updated to include the sites that are open.

“We’ve never done an election like this before; we have no idea what the impact will be for turnout, in terms of how many people will decide to vote because it showed up in their mailbox,” said Alicia D’Alessandro, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Elections. “And whether or not the fact that not every polling location is open is going to impact that.”

Legal challenge already in play

On the eve of the primary, one progressive congressional candidate filed a federal lawsuit contending that the party-line structure of ballots is unconstitutional. The suit, which came a week after a report pointed out the same problem, alleges that the layout of the typical New Jersey ballot — arranging all the candidates with a party endorsement in the same line — violates the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and similar provisions of the state Constitution.

Funded by the New Jersey Progressive Legal Defense Fund on behalf of Christine Conforti, a Democratic candidate in the 4th Congressional District, the suit names as defendants the clerks of the three counties — Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean — with precincts in the district. It seeks to end the use of the party-line ballot and instead group all candidates individually by office sought.

“It places an undue burden on the right to vote, tipping the scales in favor of certain candidates over others,” said Brett Pugach, one of the attorneys who filed the suit in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey. “It violates equal protection rights, as it fails to treat similarly situated candidates for the same office equally. It also violates their freedom of association and, more particularly, the right not to associate, by basically forcing candidates to bracket with other candidates and punishing them through ballot position if they do not.”

Early indications

So far, turnout appears to be heavy. A sampling of county election officials contacted by NJ Spotlight found that roughly a third of ballots sent out had been returned by Monday. Election workers will keep counting ballots received over the next seven days, provided they were postmarked by Tuesday. Then they will start counting the provisional ballots cast in person at the polls.

Jamie Sheehan-Willis, Bergen County’s election commissioner, said the county had already received more than 100,000 mail-in ballots Monday, a 20-fold increase over last year.

“They’re going to continue to come in and we can continue to receive them until the 14th,” she said. Sheehan-Willis said the county has brought on part-timers to help with the election, but it will likely still take time to count all the ballots. “We hope to get the bulk of what we have received up to today counted by the end of Wednesday.”

As did her counterparts across the state, she said her office is being inundated with calls.

“Mass confusion on many levels,” said Evelynn S. Caterson, who chairs the Atlantic County Board of Elections.

The county had sent out 107,000 ballots and received 34,000 back as of Thursday. “Remember, there will still be provisional ballots to be counted as well,” Caterson said. “There may be voters who didn’t want to go to the polls, as well as voters who are going to the polls tomorrow believing they can vote in a machine.”

Because of the mass mailing of ballots, virtually all those who show up at the polls will have to use a paper provisional ballot. This way, election officials can check them against the voter database to ensure the individuals had not already voted by mail before counting their ballots. As a result, officials won’t start counting the provisional ballots until early next week.

“We want to make sure that voters don’t think there’s anything amiss,” D’Alessandro said. “This was expected. We’ve got to hand count ballots. It’s going to take a while.”

Those who go to the polls and are not currently affiliated will have to declare as a Democrat or Republican to cast a ballot.

Checking signatures

A further delay in final results is likely due to the new process put in place this year in response to a federal lawsuit challenging the rejection of ballots based on a signature mismatch. For this election only, anyone whose ballot is at risk of being invalidated because the signature does not match the one on file is being sent a form letter providing an opportunity to attest to having voted. These forms all need to be returned to county election officials by July 23, D’Alessandro said. For the first time, the division sent guidance to county officials about matching signatures.

Speaking at his daily media briefing on the novel coronavirus, Gov. Phil Murphy had some advice for those who may not have voted by mail and still want to participate in the election, but may have just returned from a place, such as the South or California, where cases of COVID-19 have been spiking.

“If you’ve got a ballot to vote by mail, use it,” he said. “If you’re sick and you’re awaiting a test, as much as I want you to vote, I’m not wild about you going out to a public place. Get a hold of a county clerk and get their advice about what you need to do.”

State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli was even more firm: “If you’re sick, don’t go out. You can’t,” she said.

D’Alessandro said the state spent about $100,000 on a combination of billboards, advertising and digital outreach explaining how this year’s voting would work and directing voters to its website, which contains information about the primary. The joint NJ Spotlight/NJTV News election website also has information on where and how to vote, as well as overviews of each federal race.

Post-mortem planned

There has been a host of problems with the vote-by-mail system, from computer glitches to postal-delivery issues. Murphy said he is reserving judgment about the process until there can be a thorough analysis of how everything worked during the primary — including whether mail-in balloting boosted turnout. Only after that is done, Murphy said, will he make a decision on how to conduct the November general election.

“This is going to be something that takes some number of days to really give this the post mortem it needs,” Murphy said. “The more people who vote the better and that’s a good sign you’ve got democracy going in the right direction.”

He added: “It will, in fairness, I think, take some time to give a full accounting for how this worked. The good news is we have time in order to make the decisions we need to make for the November election, but our premise begins and ends with we want as many people as possible having the ability to vote.”

Murphy said officials will be looking for “any obvious breakdowns in the system,” either in mail-in or in-person balloting. “We’re going to be watching very closely for any shenanigans, any voter suppression, anybody who’s trying to job the system,” he said.

Superior Court judges will sit throughout the state Tuesday to handle any election-related issues, such as an individual being denied the ability to vote at a polling place, through virtual hearings.

NJSpotlight and NJTV News will provide election results after the polls close at 8 p.m.