More than a month after New Jersey’s delayed primary, state election officials on Monday posted a roster of winning congressional and state legislative candidates along with details on voter turnout.
Close to 1.47 million people voted in last month’s primary, which represents 38.7% of registered Democrats and Republicans and 26% of all registered voters. Some pundits had believed that mailing a ballot to all active partisan voters would lead to a higher turnout. While about 78,000 more voters cast ballots than in 2016, the last time the presidential race topped the ticket, the percentage of registered Democrats and Republicans was almost 10 percentage points higher in 2016 — 48.2% — and the turnout compared to all registrants was the same.
Still unreported, as of mid-day Monday, was a breakdown of voting by mail and voting in person by provisional ballot.
Secretary of State Tahesha Way had set a deadline of July 24 for counties to certify their election results, but seven counties asked for an extension. The primary election results, dated Aug. 9, are available on the state Division of Elections website.
For the past month, the public knew little more about results than in the days immediately following the July 7 primary, which Gov. Phil Murphy delayed and ordered conducted primarily by mail to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
The state Division of Elections typically posts unofficial results of federal and statewide races a day or two after polls close. The outcome of only one major race is being challenged — the Republican nomination to face U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, the Democratic incumbent. Monday’s results showed Rikin “Rik” Mehta as the victor by about 8,700 votes.
Fall ballots cannot be drawn up until winners are declared legally in all races and Way certifies which candidates are eligible for the November general election. As of Friday, the only official candidates were independents who did not compete in primaries: seven for president, three for U.S. Senate and 15 for the House of Representatives.
Asked about the delay last Friday during a press conference, Gov. Phil Murphy did not seem overly concerned.
“When we have the news on the primary election, the Secretary of State … will post them,” he said.
GOP Senate race still in dispute
The closest statewide contest would up being the Republican senate nomination. Runner-up Hirsh Singh was contesting results that showed him losing to Rik Mehta by less than 10,000 votes, or about 2.5 percentage points. He was seeking a recount in every county, but as of Friday he had gotten judges in only three counties to approve the recounts. One issue is financial, as the candidate asking for a recount typically must pay the cost of the count unless the new result change the outcome.
“Tens of thousands of ballots remain uncounted, rejected or lost, disenfranchising tens of thousands of New Jersey voters,” Singh said in a statement.
The voter turnout report shows that 40,845 ballots were rejected, although it does not give reasons for the rejections. That represents 2.7% of the ballots cast, significantly more than in the 2016 primary (5,176 or .4% of all rejected) or the general election in 2012, when Superstorm Sandy led to people voting by provisional ballot or by fax or email due to flooding, lack of power and general chaos for weeks after the storm.
Singh also complained of an inability to get details about the number of mail-in ballots and when they were received, the number rejected and why, and other information.
There is a lot of interest in how well the election went, given it was conducted almost entirely by paper ballot — either those mailed in or deposited in drop boxes, or provisional ballots filled out at polling locations on Election Day. Voting-rights advocates are eagerly waiting to hear how many ballots were rejected, especially for signature-related issues, and how many people were able to fix a ballot problem, given a state agreement to allow such fixes in order to settle a federal lawsuit. The suit was brought by the League of Women Voters after more than 11,000 ballots, or about 10% of those cast, were rejected in May 12 special elections conducted completely by mail.
The state Division of Elections has yet to provide an accounting of rejections and “cures,” as required under the settlement.
Last month’s primary was the first statewide election in New Jersey history with widespread use of mail-in ballots. All active registered Democrats and Republicans automatically were sent a ballot in the mail and early reports indicated at least 1 million chose to vote that way. But the state also had at least one polling place open in each town, and half of those normally open in each county, to allow for in-person voting using provisional ballots.
An unfortunate delay
Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said not having these questions about the primary answered less than three months before the general election is unfortunate.
“One of the hopes had been that we would learn from our experiences with the primary, and the longer it goes until we can assess how it went, the tougher it will be to do improve the process in time for the general election,” he said. “Voters on both sides of the fence consider their vote in this year’s presidential election to be particularly important and would be pretty upset to learn their ballot had been thrown out over something we could have and should have addressed beforehand.”
Murphy on Friday repeated something he has said before about how the primary went, while still not committing to how he plans to conduct the general election.
“We’ve learned a fair amount from it (the primary), and most of what we saw, we liked,” he said. “If anything, I think the physical in-person capacity undershot our aspirations and hope, which is why I’ve said now for several weeks we want to make a decision, I would hope, plus or minus by the middle of this month as to what November will look like.”
But county clerks around the state are getting nervous. In a post-primary call with Murphy, the clerks urged him to decide by Aug. 1 how general election voting will happen. The process of printing and sending a mail-in ballot to all 6.2 million registered New Jersey voters — and doing it early enough to account for continuing problems with mail delivery — will be daunting, clerks say.
“After what I went through with this primary, I just don’t know,” said Mary Melfi, the longtime clerk in Hunterdon County. “Getting ballots and envelopes printed and put together for all voters takes time.”