NJ Moves to Strengthen November’s Mail-In Election

Lawmakers send three bills to Gov. Phil Murphy backers say add safeguards
Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
July 7, 2020: Mallissa Wright placed her primary election ballot in a drop box in Hackensack,.

The Legislature on Thursday sent Gov. Phil Murphy a trio of bills that would write into law his order that this November’s election be held primarily by mail and would put safeguards in place to prevent the disenfranchisement of large numbers of voters.

Republicans, most of whom opposed the election changes for a host of reasons, questioned whether the state would have the resources to process and count all of the paper ballots within a reasonable amount of time. One third of counties could not meet an extended deadline for certifying primary results, and it took the state Division of Elections more than a month to post the list of winners of the July 7 election. Unofficial results are usually posted within days.

Murphy said he set aside $15 million from the major federal COVID-19 aid package to “put more equipment, more people on the case, both for the vote by mail, as well as the in-person piece” to help move the process along.

Hard deadline: Nov. 23, no exceptions

The legislation that both houses passed Thursday, and on which Murphy took rare action almost immediately to seek a technical correction, would require that all results be certified by Nov. 23 with no extensions. About 4 million people are expected to cast ballots in the state with the presidential election at the top of the ticket as well as a race for U.S. Senate and all 12 House seats.

Murphy’s $32.4 billion nine-month budget includes $5 million to expand early voting in the state next year, although that is not enough to fully implement the program specified in S-99, which is still moving through the Legislature. A new fiscal estimate on the expansion notes the executive branch estimated the cost at $20.2 million, including $18.5 million for electronic poll books. For the upcoming election, early voting will be available as it has been in the past, using a paper ballot typically in a county clerk’s office on certain dates leading up to Election Day.

Republicans, who had aired their complaints and concerns at numerous committee hearings in both houses, made last ditch pleas to amend two of the bills on Thursday. Democrats blocked the attempted amendments and were not swayed by the arguments.

When Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Sussex) asked Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex), sponsor of two of the three bills, if he could “really look me in the eye and tell me that come Election Day you think it’s not safe for New Jersey residents to walk in and simply press a button?” Zwicker looked Wirths in the eye and responded: “By voting by mail … I am reducing the possibility of transmission of COVID-19.”

Skeptical about dangers of voting in person

“New Jersey’s logic in the COVID era has become very difficult to follow,” said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen). “It’s safe to sit in a casino for hours while pushing multiple buttons on the Wheel of Fortune slot machine with hundreds of other people. It’s safe to stand on line for eight to 10 hours at a time at DMV to renew your license with hundreds of other people while pushing unsanitized buttons to pay your bills to the state of New Jersey. But what we have deemed not safe is exercising your right to vote in person, by stepping into a voting machine for less than one minute, while pushing a couple of buttons.”

But Sen. Herb Conaway (D-Burlington), a medical doctor, said the state’s current apparent control of the virus — the number of COVID-19 cases has been generally flat and at a manageable level since mid-June — is immaterial when the election is still more than nine weeks away and predictions are that COVID-19 will flare up again at the same time as the flu is likely to be circulating.

“We may be experiencing a resurgence of this virus, which would deter people from going to the polls and voting in person,” he said. “This government has been quite right to prepare for the eventuality that many national experts have told us we should expect.”

By mostly party-line votes, both houses approved and sent to Murphy three bills:

  • A-4475 codifies two Murphy executive orders making the election primarily vote-by-mail and sets standards for ballot drop boxes for the November election and future elections. Murphy is expected to sign this measure soon, and his doing so should make moot the lawsuit filed last week by the Trump campaign and the New Jersey State Republican Committee that contends Murphy does not have the authority to dictate the conduct of the upcoming election. The governor took the unusual step of almost immediately conditionally vetoing that bill to correct one date so that both the Assembly and Senate could then vote to concur with the veto before their voting sessions ended and send the bill back to Murphy’s desk.
  • A-4276 provides greater flexibility in allowing voters to fix problems that county election officials identify with a ballot and prevent a ballot from being voided for signature issues. Voters were given the opportunity to “cure” such issues with a ballot in the primary, as a result of the state’s settlement of a lawsuit, but that does not automatically carry over to the general election without its enactment into law. The Division of Elections reported that close to 41,000 ballots, or 2.7% of all cast in the primary, were rejected for some reason and 6,851 rejections were prevented when voters returned cure letters affirming their votes.
  • A-4320 requires the state to undertake a public awareness campaign about how to vote by mail, as well as prohibit the rejection of some ballots due to issues outside the control of the voter — for instance, a defective envelope.