Lawmakers Bolster NJ Vote by Mail Ahead of 2020 Election

Bills now set for final votes on Thursday. Some designed to blunt lawsuit from state GOP and Trump campaign
Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
July 7, 2020: In Newark, a woman places her mail-in ballot for the primary election into a drop box.

Committees in both houses of the Legislature Monday approved several bills designed to improve a November election when nearly all votes will be cast by mail and to blunt a Republican challenge to that balloting.

The bills are now positioned for final passage and submission to Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday.

Action on two of the bills was delayed for several hours as legislative staff worked on amendments meant to bring them more in line with Murphy’s recent executive order specifying that the general election be conducted primarily by mail and to delay some of the measures’ voting protections until next year because it would be too difficult to put them in place for an election that is now just 70 days away.

“There is nothing that weakens the bills,” said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex), a sponsor of all three voting-related measures approved essentially along party lines by the Assembly Appropriations Committee. “It certainly appears we are good to go.”

Undermining GOP lawsuit

Probably most significantly, A-4475 and S-2580 would essentially codify Murphy’s order, which, if enacted, 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. No arguments have been scheduled in that lawsuit. Zwicker said the goal of those amendments is to “undermine” that lawsuit.

The  original purpose of that bill was to increase the number of drop boxes in each county  — something Murphy’s executive order does — to ensure votes get to county election officials in time to be counted. That would allow people to bypass the U.S. Postal Service, which has been less reliable than in the past since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Murphy extended the deadline for ballots to be received to a week after Election Day, but thousands of votes in the primary were not counted because they arrived past that later deadline. The bill was amended to give county election officials greater latitude in siting the drop boxes, while delaying some of its provisions until next year.

A ‘cure’ for problem ballots

Similarly, A-4276 and S-2598 were amended to provide greater flexibility in allowing voters to fix problems that county election officials identify with a ballot. That would prevent the ballot from being voided for one of several reasons, for instance, a perceived mismatch between signature on the ballot envelope and the one on the voter’s original registration.

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 brought by the state League of Women Voters and other groups who had argued signature verification procedures unconstitutionally disenfranchised voters. The amended bill, the Ballot Cure Act, would make that process permanent and give voters until 48 hours prior to the deadline for the certification of the final vote tally to cure any problems and see that their votes are counted.

Allowing voters to cure ballot problems is important given that close to 41,000 ballots or 2.7% of all cast in the primary were rejected for some reason.

Additionally, the Assembly committee endorsed A-4320, which would require 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.

All three measures are slated for final passage by the Assembly, and likely by the Senate, on Thursday.

Bills late to Senate committee

The process of amending the bills caused the Assembly Appropriations Committee meeting to stretch for more than five hours, and by the time the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee took up its versions of the bill around 5:30 p.m., only Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) remained to vote in person, with all others members having voted in advance and left. The votes were party-line, with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing, with the exception of Sen. Sam Thompson (R-Middlesex), who abstained on the drop-box bill but voted “yes” on the Ballot Cure Act.

The Assembly was to have taken up another bill, A-4259, which would extend ballot receipt and election certification deadlines, as well as increase the number of ballots an individual could deliver to election officials, but the measure was held for amendment.

Several other voting-related bills that have been moving through committees in recent weeks, including one that would allow county election officials to begin processing ballots as many as five days before the polls close, were not considered and do not yet appear on Thursday’s agenda, leaving their fate unclear, at least for the upcoming election.

Bill sponsors said the changes need to be enacted quickly to improve the conduct of a mostly vote-by-mail election in a presidential election year, in which some 4.2 million voters are expected to cast ballots. County election officials have never had to handle as many paper ballots in any previous election.