Why So Many Mail-In Ballots Were Rejected in NJ’s July Primary Election. Hint: Many Arrived Late

NJ Spotlight analysis of why thousands of ballots were rejected. Advocates and officials hope recent legislation will reduce the rejections in November election

More than one out every four ballots rejected by election officials in the July 7 primary were discounted because they arrived too late, according to an NJ Spotlight analysis of state voting records.

Late arrival was the biggest reason why mail-in ballots were rejected, according to the analysis, and it highlights the potential problems with using the U.S. Postal Service for the November general election. That also underscores the support advocates and others are giving to the state’s decision to offer voters more secure drop boxes and other options to return their ballots.

Using the state database of mail-in voters as of Aug. 19, NJ Spotlight found that 9,550 ballots, or 27.4% of all mail-in ballots rejected, were not counted because they arrived after the deadline.

That was despite Gov. Phil Murphy’s having extended the deadline by which ballots marked by Election Day could be received and still be counted. Murphy gave election officials until one week after polls closed to count ballots.

In all, state data shows that 2.7% of 1.28 million mail-in ballots cast, or almost 35,000, were rejected for one of 18 reasons. Voter errors were responsible for slightly more than a third of rejected ballots, with close to 11,800 not counted because the voter either forgot to sign the certificate attached to the envelope in which the ballot must be placed, tore off the signature or forgot to enclose the ballot.

The analysis also shows that voters living in some counties had a greater chance of having a ballot rejected than in others. Rejection rates ranged from a low of 1% in Sussex County to a high of 7.2% in Hudson.

Trying to prevent a repeat

Knowing why ballots are being rejected is important to try to prevent as many rejections as possible to avoid disenfranchising a large number of general election voters in a presidential election year; in November, 4 million New Jersey voters or more are expected to cast ballots for president, U.S. Senate, House as well as county and local seats. Most are expected to vote by mail, given every active voter will receive a ballot and COVID-19 continues to circulate in the state.

“The way I use this (data) is purely to drive legislation needed to minimize the number of rejections, for one, and number two, it drives education,” said Uyen “Winn” Khuong, founder and executive director of Action Together NJ. Her website VotebymailNJ.org provides information about mail-in balloting and includes guidance meant to prevent voters from making mistakes that might void their ballots. “So if I know certificate not signed is number three (reason for rejections) … that’s what I’m going to focus on, telling people, ‘Please sign your certificate.’ It drives how I educate.”

According to the Secretary of State’s Division of Elections, almost 88% of some 1.47 million New Jerseyans who voted in July did so using a mail-in ballot. Nearly all the rest, about 184,000, voted in person at a polling place using a provisional ballot.

Information on provisional ballot rejections does not appear to be available in the state’s database, but it seems that about 5,900 of these were rejected — a rate of about 3.2%.

Alicia D’Alessandro, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s office, and Khuong think most of these were rejected because an individual had already voted by mail, not to try to cast duplicate ballots, but because people forgot or were unsure whether they had already submitted a ballot. Henal Patel, director of the democracy and justice program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said provisional ballots can also be rejected if the signature on a ballot does not match the one on file for the voter and if such rejections are occurring, voters should have the ability to cure them.

Mismatched signatures

A mismatched signature was among the most common reasons for the rejections of mail-in ballots in the July primary. Others included that the certificate that should be attached to the envelope in which the ballot is placed was missing, the ballot itself was not enclosed and an unspecified “other” category.

About 4,200 ballots were rejected, about 12% of all mail-in ballots, due to a signature mismatch. That’s something voting and social justice advocates say they will keep trying to prevent. In June, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey and other organizations sued the state over signature verification issues. As part of a settlement, the state agreed to provide greater guidance to county officials on matching signatures and set up a process to allow voters to fix a ballot that might be rejected. According to elections officials, 19 of the 21 counties sent close to 15,900 “cure” letters to primary voters and 6,851 people, or about 43%, were able to prevent a ballot rejection. Another 557, or about 4%, did not respond in time to have their votes counted. No information was reported for Cape May or Middlesex counties.

Credit: NJTV News
An election worker in Union County sorted mail-in ballots on Tuesday, July 7, 2020 for primary election.

“I am really glad that thousands of people whose ballots would have been rejected had their ballots counted,” Patel said. “I think the biggest challenge is the lack of voter education about it … We have a process in place, but the process was in place only weeks before the election.”

She said hers and other organizations will be working to provide more information about the cure process leading up to the Nov. 3 election, as well as urging voters to return their ballots early or by using methods other than the mail.

In addition to at least doubling the number of drop boxes in each county, Murphy has enacted two other new provisions designed to help voters bypass the Postal Service. One allows for voters to drop off their mail-in ballots at their local polling locations. The other will allow that ballots returned via the mail but without a postmark be counted if they are received within 48 hours of polls closing — or 8 p.m. on Nov. 5.

Khuong said these are very important provisions now in law, because late arrival is always the biggest reason for ballot rejections. Allowing ballots without postmarks to be counted if they arrive soon after polls close is especially important, she said, and something she pushed for inclusion in the election reform bills Murphy recently signed, “especially when I found out the legislators and the governor’s office did not know that USPS is not in the habit of and is not required to put postmark cancellations on prepaid mail.”

More rejected in Hudson County than elsewhere

Other issues, however, are harder to fix. For instance, the data on ballot rejections shows that Hudson County, by far, rejected the greatest number and proportion of ballots in the primary. That has been the case in the last few federal elections as well.

The elections division’s report on primary turnout shows Hudson County rejected 6,285 ballots, or 7.2% of all those cast. The state’s largest county, Bergen, rejected 5,130 ballots, or 3.5% of all those submitted. The Hudson County superintendent of elections did not return a request for comment. Other counties — Sussex and Atlantic — rejected just 1% of ballots.

Patel said the decentralization of elections in the state contributes to electoral problems, including in the design of ballots, recruitment of poll workers and rejection of ballots.

“In some ways it’s a good thing: You have counties running it and that’s a little bit more local so you have a connection to your own area,” she said. “However, it does create some challenges and one … is that it’s hard to have proper oversight from the state for things that there should be oversight about. This is the type of thing where, if you have a county that’s a clear outlier, there should be a way to look into that, to say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ to be able to ask these questions. It’s difficult.”

D’Alessandro confirmed that officials in the Secretary of State’s office don’t have the authority to order county officials to change some of their methods.

“We are not an investigatory agency,” she said. “We can provide guidance, but if they are rejecting ballots and using the proper guidance — and they say they are — there’s nothing else we can do.”