Editor’s Note: This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. It is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
For Beth Thompson and her team of ballot wranglers at the Old Court House in Flemington, the workday starts around 7:30 a.m. and usually spools out past 9 at night.
Six days a week. For the past six weeks. Hundreds of phone calls. More than 5,500 walk-ins. All anxious voters. Many angry.
“You might call it a nightmare,’’ said Thompson, supervisor of the Board or Elections in Hunterdon County, a mostly rural stretch of western New Jersey with about 125,000 residents. “There are so many voters to deal with it’s hard to really focus on processing the ballots until evening.’’
With more than 2 million mail-in ballots flooding New Jersey’s election facilities already, and at least another 2 million or more coming before Election Day on Nov. 3, front-line election workers face uncommon challenges during the nation’s worst public health crisis in a century.
Officials in a half-dozen counties surveyed by NJ Spotlight News last week say they’re ready for the final push in the state’s first mail-in general election.
They’ve hired hundreds of new election workers, rented cavernous workspaces in office parks, spent millions on high-tech scanners and vote tabulators, conducted dozens of training classes and even hired forensic handwriting experts to help sort out scribbled ballot signatures.
Bergen County, the state’s largest with more than 930,000 residents, has spent more than $2.5 million so far for state-of-the art equipment and new workers to process an expected 500,000 ballots. On Saturday, the county will even provide live streaming coverage as hundreds of socially distanced workers seated in a gym will crack open ballot “privacy” envelopes and start counting votes.
“It’s about as transparent as you can get,’’ said Bergen County Clerk John Hogan.
Still, despite all the preparations, election officials say they are beset by waves of technical and logistical worries, not to mention widespread misinformation, confusion and — in many cases — hostility from the voters themselves.
Unhappy with mail-in voting
Across the state, election workers have encountered a stubborn strain of resistance to the mail-in process. A lot of people in Jersey, officials say, are attached to their traditional, in-person routines and polling places, not to mention familiar voting booths and machines.
Many voters, they say, fear losing the secrecy and safety of the ballot box.
“It’s all about privacy,’’ said Scott M. Colabella, the longtime Ocean County clerk. “People seem to think that voting by mail won’t be secret. Of course it is, but we hear that all the time.’’
Nicole DiRado, who supervises the board of elections in Union County, said the biggest challenge her staff faces every day is confusion among the voters. Many people, she said, believe that mail-in voting strips them of a constitutional right and the certainty that their vote will actually be tallied.
“People have a deep concern that their votes won’t count this time around, that they are being disenfranchised,’’ DiRado said.
Voter confusion and suspicion, at times, is spiraling into outright hostility. DiRado and other officials said elections board workers routinely field calls and visits from people accusing them of rigging the election or committing fraud.
“A lot of the calls are not nice, let me leave it at that,’’ DiRado said.
Voter anxiety has been stoked by a steady stream of misinformation coming from social media, news outlets and politicians. The front-line election workers see it every day.
“Every time President Trump tweets about the election being rigged, we get a brand-new wave of calls from people,’ said Hogan, the Bergen County Clerk. “That has become an obstacle as we go try to go forward.’’
Glitches take their toll
Technical issues are also bedeviling election workers.
In Bergen County, officials said, more than 58,000 ballots sat unprocessed in a mail bin for about a week because the county’s computers couldn’t communicate with machinery in the state voter-registration system. The state system, they said, blinked in and out while unopened ballots piled up.
“We simply couldn’t download our information,’’ said Richard Miller, a county elections official.
“Hopefully that stays fixed so we don’t get behind again.‘‘
The state’s “Track Your Ballot” website has also been bug-prone. Many voters say they have been unable to register at the site or are frequently locked out. Some complain that the site is slow to post their ballots as “received.” Still others wonder why their ballots are not yet listed as “accepted,’’ but county officials say that probably won’t happen until Nov. 20 when all votes are officially certified.
If you’ve mailed in or dropped off your ballot, officials said, you may have to wait a week or more for the tracker to list it as “received.’’
“The tracking portal is simply not ready to handle what it was designed for,” said Lynn Caterson, chair of the Atlantic County Board of Elections, which is now processing about 5,000 ballots a day.
Caterson also said election workers have been stymied by electronic signatures from voters who registered online or at their local MVC office. Many of those signatures are illegible, she said, making it impossible for officials to match the signatures on the mail-in ballots. When creating a signature at the MVC, potential voters use a stylus which can create a much different signature than one when they use a pen.
All of those voters are among the thousands in the state getting so-called cure letters from their local election board asking for a new signature. Some counties told NJ Spotlight News that up to half of all their cure letters are being sent to voters who registered online.
“These electronic signatures are a disaster,” Caterson said. “It’s just a lot of scribble. There has to be a better way.’’
Emily J. Will, a certified forensic handwriting expert from Wake Forest, N.C., said local election boards should not be expected to process thousands of signatures. Even with many handwriting samples to choose from, she said, the chances for misinterpretation are large, especially using electronic signatures.
“There is often huge variation in the way someone signs their name,’’ she said. “Signatures can change throughout life. They change with your health, with where you sign. Stylus signatures are often just scribbled.’’
State officials acknowledge that challenges remain as election boards work overtime to manage unprecedented numbers of mail-in votes. But they emphasize that technical issues, such as those with the ballot-curing process and “Track my Vote” system, are relatively minor and will be tweaked in future elections.
They say New Jersey voters have overwhelmingly embraced the ballot box system, which has proven remarkably secure.
Alicia D’Alessandro, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of State, which includes the division of elections, said the stress on election workers is overwhelming and certain to increase by Election Day.
“These people are working their butts off,’’ D’Alessandro said. “But voters should be 100% confident the system is safe and their ballots will be counted.’’ Thanks to the all-mail-in election, she added, for the first time in years New Jersey voters will have a paper trail to guarantee their vote is counted.
Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, said the best antidote to potential Election Day chaos looming over the 2020 election is to vote early.
“My biggest fear is that voters will wait too long,’’ she said. “So drop off your ballot now. Don’t rely on the postal system. Get your vote in now.’’
Earlier this year, Burns’ group sued the state, claiming that mail-in voting effectively disenfranchised many voters whose ballots were tossed because signatures did not match those on file. The current ballot “cure” system was put in place to give such voters a second chance.
An NJ Spotlight News analysis in June of the vote-by-mail ballots cast in 31 municipalities that held nonpartisan municipal, school board or special elections on May 12 — an entirely mail-in election — found that election officials did not count 9.6% of ballots sent in. State data showed that signature issues were the most common reason for rejection.