Vote-By-Mail: NJ Lawmakers Push Raft of Measures to Make it Easier — and Make Sure Votes Count

Changes would apply to November presidential election and beyond
Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
July 7, 2020: Placing a mail-in ballot for the primary election at a drop box in Hackensack.

A New Jersey Senate committee on Thursday approved seven measures designed to improve the ability of people to vote — and ensure their votes count — during this year’s presidential election amid the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Discussion during the two-hour hearing by the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee amplified the complexities of conducting a mostly vote-by-mail election in a state with 6.2 million registered voters who have only begun to embrace mail-in balloting in substantial numbers in recent years.

The state changed from a system of absentee ballots for those unable to get to the polls in person to a no-reason mail-in ballot system in 2009. Until last month’s primary election, the largest number of ballots cast by mail totaled 400,000 in the 2018 general election. This year’s presidential election could attract some 4.2 million voters, based on recent turnouts.

Last Friday, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order to conduct the Nov. 3 general election primarily by mail and required county clerks to send a mail-in ballot to all active voters, generally defined as those who have voted in at least one of the last two federal elections. The state will also open at least one polling place in each municipality and half of the polling locations in each county on Election Day, as it did for the July 7 primary.

The committee passed measures to both make it easier to return a mail-in ballot and to see that one’s ballot is counted. If signed into law, the changes would apply to all future elections. The bills would double the number of drop boxes in each county to 10 — something included in Murphy’s executive order; they would allow people to drop off ballots in person up to two weeks before Election Day and give voters the right to fix perceived ballot problems that might lead county election officials to reject their votes..

“Today we are addressing some things that will help election officials and, hopefully, ultimately, our voters, so no one is disenfranchised, no one votes twice and … every vote is counted,” said Sen. James Beach (D-Camden), chair of the committee and a former county clerk.

Still don’t know full details of July primary election

More than six weeks after the primary, the state Division of Elections has yet to post full details, including reasons for ballot rejections or how many people voted by mail, compared to those who chose to vote in person using a provisional ballot. The state has reported that close to 1.47 million people voted in the primary and that close to 41,000 ballots, or about 2.7% of all those submitted, were rejected.

Uyen “Winn” Khuong, founder and executive director of Action Together NJ, said that she thinks the most common reason why ballots were rejected last month was that they arrived too late to be counted. That’s despite Murphy’s ordering that all ballots received as long as a week after the primary be counted, provided they were postmarked by Election Day. She said that’s why it’s important to have other avenues, such as ballot drop boxes and in-person ballot delivery, that voters can use “to bypass the USPS.”

The national League of Women Voters and others filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday contending that changes by the new postmaster general place an undue burden on an individual’s right to vote. Those measures had enraged Democrats and others, who said it was an attempt to suppress the vote. The same day, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced that he was suspending several cost-cutting proposals until after the November elections and that the postal service “will deliver the nation’s election mail on time and within our well-established service standards.”

Giving voters other avenues for submitting ballots was the focus of several bills the committee cleared.

Expanding early voting

One of those, S-99, would expand early voting by requiring each county to designate between three and five locations for early voting for 10 hours a day Monday through Friday and eight hours on Sunday, beginning 15 days before an election and ending on the preceding Sunday. Those voting early would vote on a paper ballot, essentially a mail-in ballot, which is how more limited early voting already is conducted. A person could also drop off the mail-in ballot at early voting locations.

More drop boxes

Another bill, S-2580, would require each county to place at least 10 drop boxes in high-profile locations, including outside college campuses and county offices, at least 45 days before an election. The state paid for each county to site five boxes in each county for the primary and some clerks said these were popular with voters. A fiscal note to the bill did not specify a cost, but stated that the Division of Elections had spent $525,000 in federal COVID-19 relief aid to purchase 105 boxes at $5,000 each for the primary. Doubling the number of boxes would cost another $525,000, plus potential additional installation costs.

“It is becoming clearer by the day that voters need alternative ways to deliver their ballots,” said Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), sponsor of the drop boxes bill. “This is why every county should have drop boxes where people can directly submit their ballots. And anyone who submitted a VBM (vote-by-mail) ballot should receive confirmation that their vote was received and counted.”

Show that votes are counted

Singleton is also sponsoring S-2776, which would require county boards of elections to mail notices to all mail-in voters after each election, confirming their ballot was received and counted. Currently, those who sign up can check the status of a mail-in ballot on the Division of Elections’ website.

Allow voters to fix ballot problems

To prevent a ballot from being discounted for a number of other reasons — from a perceived signature mismatch between the ballot envelope and the voter’s original registration to the envelope not being sealed properly —  the committee approved S-2598. Called the Ballot Cure Act, it would require that voters be told of a potential ballot rejection and have the right to fix a problem. The bill’s provisions are similar to those in place for the primary due to the state’s settlement of a lawsuit brought by the state League of Women Voters and other groups, which had argued that signature verification procedures unconstitutionally disenfranchised voters.

Require information campaign

Another measure that Khuong called significant, S-2633, would require the state to launch a public awareness campaign about how to vote by mail, to promote voting by mail and increase awareness for how mail-in ballots work.

“The voter has the most critical part in the election,” she said, “but also in the process of elections, educating the voters is key. And we have seen that there has been a deficit of education on elections in general and vote by mail.”

Credit: ATNJ
Uyen “Winn” Khuong, of Action Together NJ

Khuong, who has set up a website dedicated to educating people about mail-in voting in the state, said she has had to explain how to properly fill out a ballot and return it to  college graduates and non-graduates, alike.

In addition, the bill would extend the deadline for mail-in ballots to be considered valid from the current 48 hours written into the law to six days after Election Day — Murphy’s executive order makes that seven days for the November general election — provided they are postmarked on Election Day. And ballots without a postmark, or improperly marked, could be counted if received within 48 hours after the polls close.

Allow counties to process ballots early

One bill seeks to make the counting of ballots a little easier by allowing counties to start processing mail-in ballots as early as five days before the election. Beach, sponsor of S-2819, said that allowing county election officials to remove ballots from the inner envelopes in which they are held would help in the counting of mail-in ballots. It took some counties more than two weeks to finish counting all the ballots cast in last month’s primary.

“With the governor’s announcement to send every voter a mail-in ballot this November, it is critical we proactively address the logistical challenges county clerks may face with such an influx of mail-in-ballots,” he said. “God knows when we’re going to be able to certify this election, but without doing things like this, you’re probably looking at not having fairly accurate numbers until Thanksgiving,” Beach said.

The state Division of Elections did not post the official results of the July 7 primary until August 9.

Online application

 A final measure, S-2820, would help voters in future elections more easily request a mail-in ballot by submitting that application via the state elections division’s website.

All the bills passed with “yes” votes from all three Democrats. Sen. Chris Brown (R-Atlantic) — who did not attend the hearing — registered “no” votes on all but the final bill. Sen. Sam Thompson (R-Middlesex) voted “no” or abstained on most of the bills and voted “yes” to allow for online mail-in ballot requests in future elections.

Thompson had several concerns about a number of the measures. After the hearing, he released a statement calling for the state to allow voters who are willing to return their unopened mail-in ballots to a polling place on Election Day to instead vote using a traditional electronic voting machine.

Sen. Sam Thompson (R-Middlesex)

“My office is being inundated with calls and emails from people who are livid that they are being forced by executive order to vote in the upcoming presidential election by mail-in ballot,” he said. “They trust the security of a voting booth and they are willing to tolerate whatever risk is associated with spending the five minutes it takes to cast their ballot in-person to ensure their vote is counted.”

In-person voting in November would likely take longer than five minutes, depending on the location and time of day, because election workers would be required to sanitize the machines after each voter finishes. And, depending on the size of the polling place, some voters would likely be forced to wait on long lines outside in what could be cold or inclement weather in order to keep 6-foot distances between those on line and limit the number of people indoors at one time to minimize the potential spread of the coronavirus, which has already killed nearly 16,000 New Jerseyans.

Republican resistance

Many prominent New Jersey Republicans continue to call for in-person, machine voting, saying that if it is OK for people to wait on long lines to conduct business at state motor vehicles agencies, it should be OK for them to wait on line to vote.

They could still get their wish, depending on the outcome of the lawsuit filed in federal court late Tuesday. The Trump campaign and New Jersey State Republican Committee are challenging Murphy’s recent election order, contending the governor does not have the authority to change how the election is conducted. During a media briefing Wednesday, Murphy was unbowed, saying, “If vote-by-mail is good enough for the president, it is good enough for all of us.”

The Trump campaign also sued Nevada, which, like New Jersey, is sending a mail-in ballot to all voters due COVID-19. California, Vermont and the District of Columbia have likewise decided to conduct their general elections by mail. Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — conducted their elections entirely by mail prior to the pandemic, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.

Some of the bills have already passed Assembly committees; all require additional action before they can get to Murphy’s desk for signing.