NJ Primary Elections 2020: The Counting of Votes Continues, So Does the Waiting

Winners have been declared although a couple of races are still undecided. It will be days before all the votes are counted
Winners in South Jersey: Democrat Amy Kennedy in the 2nd District and Republican David Richter in the 3rd District

Despite declaration of winners in most of New Jersey’s federal primary elections, officials are continuing to count votes — and will do so for at least the next week under the rules Gov. Phil Murphy set for the elections.

The outcome of two Republican primaries remained in doubt as of Wednesday evening, according to the website Decision Desk HQ: the nominees for U.S. Senate and the 9th Congressional District.

The lack of clarity in results is having a greater impact on local races where candidates in many places know where they stand to date but are unsure what percentage of votes have been tallied and how many more votes remain uncounted.

Because the election was conducted primarily through mail-in ballots, and because each county conducts its own elections on its own terms, it is unclear how many mail-in votes have been counted and how many are left to tally, as well as how many people voted in person on Tuesday using provisional ballots. It is also unknown how many people dropped their ballots in the mail on Tuesday; these votes will be counted through next week.

Voters whose ballots may not be tallied until next week may feel frustrated, given the winners already have been announced in most races — including the hotly contested primaries in South Jersey’s 2nd and 3rd districts, where Democrat Amy Kennedy and Republican David Richter, respectively, won.

At least, voters should know that their votes will be counted.

“I promise you, we take every vote seriously,” Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday when asked about the election during a media briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic. “Each of the county clerks are doing their jobs and we need to give faith to everybody, ‘Your vote is going to count, whether you did it in person or whether you did it by mail.’”

Credit: NJTV News
Election workers in Union County processed mail-in ballots on Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Going into the elections, which Murphy ordered be conducted largely by mail but with a limited number of polling places open for those preferring to vote in person, it was unclear how long it would take county officials to count ballots and the quality of results available on Election Night.

A limited delivery of results held true for a number of counties Tuesday night. Passaic County finally posted some results Wednesday afternoon, while Bergen County was the only one to still have not posted any results as of  Wednesday evening.

Early results in key South Jersey races

But that wasn’t the case in the South Jersey counties that are part of the 2nd and 3rd districts, which are likely to receive national attention. Both swung from red to blue in 2018, with the 2nd again Republican with Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s decision to change parties last December after refusing to vote to impeach President Donald Trump. Enough results were reported there to allow campaign operatives to analyze the votes and determine which candidates statistically could not win.

“You look at results that come in from different areas and you see a very lopsided result in some areas, then you calculate what would the other candidate need to make up the difference,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Murray and other experienced election watchers have this process down to a science under normal circumstances. The widespread use of mail-in ballots “threw a monkey wrench into that system,” he said, but there were still enough votes available from enough voting districts to allow for relatively early calls. Democrat Brigid Callahan Harrison knew she had lost to Kennedy in the 2nd District shortly after 8 p.m. and in the 3rd District, Republican Kate Gibbs conceded to Richter around midnight after seeing Burlington County results.

“It got to the point where even though we don’t know the number of provisional ballots that are out there cast by people who showed up on Election Day to vote, in many cases, the losing candidate would have to get 100 percent of all those Election Day votes to make up the difference,” Murray explained.

How many more votes remain to be counted and when that will happen are both unknown. A spokeswoman for the state Division of Elections said that county clerks had issued more than 3.75 million mail-in ballots and received back more than 1 million, or 28% as of 9 p.m. Tuesday. That already surpasses the turnout in the 2018 primary, in which about 706,000 people voted, or 13% of all and about 20% of registered Democrats and Republicans. Not all mail-in ballots have yet been received and the elections division does not know how many provisional ballots are outstanding, so that 28% turnout is likely to be higher.

The GOP Senate race between Rik Mehta, left, and Hirsh Singh was still too close to call Wednesday afternoon.

One major race that is likely to depend on a full count is for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. Democratic incumbent Cory Booker easily won his primary, but Decision Desk’s results show the GOP race between Rik Mehta and Hirsh Singh as too close to call. As of about 3 p.m., Wednesday, it showed Mehta with about a 1-point lead over Singh, 38% to 37%. Singh was winning four South Jersey counties with Mehta ahead in all the rest except Passaic County, which Tricia Flanagan was winning. In all, five Republican candidates were on the ballot.

Here is what is known — and unknown — about how the rest of the ballot counting will proceed:

Different counties, different procedures

County election officials will continue to accept mail-in ballots through Tuesday, July 14. All ballots postmarked by July 7 will be counted. Just as it is unknown whether every county finished tallying all the ballots received through Election Day and reporting those results, it is unclear whether county election officials will be counting additional ballots as they are received, whether clerks will continue to update results as they are counted or wait until next Tuesday to post them all. County officials make these calls.

Once all the mail-in ballots are tallied, election officials will begin checking provisional ballots cast at the polls on Election Day. First, they need to verify that those who voted in person had not already voted by mail. All the ballots considered valid will then be counted. Again, it’s unclear how long this will take, with different counties using their own procedures. The volume of provisional ballots  to be processed could also dictate how long it takes to check and then count them.

Ocean County Clerk Scott Colabella said this election has been challenging. He likened it to 2012, when Superstorm Sandy hit just days before the presidential election, resulting in flooding and power outages at polling places and forcing officials to be creative in allowing people to vote. Still, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought additional challenges, such as in the case of Ocean County, staff working 12-hour days, seven days a week to prepare and using a closed library as a workspace to allow for social distancing.

“To say the least, it’s been an interesting experience,” he said. “Doing all of this work under a pandemic … This was starting in April, and we’ve been doing it now through July.”

There’s another new challenge that county officials have been navigating. Throughout the receipt and counting of ballots, an agreement reached as part of a federal lawsuit requires election officials to alert within 24 hours voters whose ballots may be rejected due to issues with a signature. Voters then have until 2 p.m. on July 23 to verify that they did indeed vote. It is unknown how many of these could be pending but there could be tens of thousands; in the May 12 election, conducted entirely by mail, about 3% of all votes were rejected for signature issues and one in 10 were rejected for all reasons.

Ultimately, the state has set a deadline of July 24 for the counting of all the votes to be complete.

Murray said it is worth waiting for the final tallies.

“We don’t know what the margin is going to be,” he said of the races. “Something that looks like a blowout right now might be a more modest win when the final votes are counted.”

— John Reitmeyer contributed to this report.