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Millions of New Jerseyans have cast their ballots for Tuesday’s election but many others have not received their mail-in ballots.
That leaves them little time and fewer options to cast a ballot except to go in person to their local election office to get a new ballot or wait to vote in person on Tuesday.
Brooke Rustad told NJ Spotlight News that her husband got his ballot but hers never arrived. When she went to track her ballot online it said, “request canceled.” Rustad says she is a registered voter and her home address in River Vale never changed. But a ballot was never mailed to her.
“I’m pretty well informed. I’ve been following this process pretty closely, I got in touch with all these people and really chased this down,” Rustad said. “A lot of people don’t know how to do that or want to do that, and I think it really deters them from actually going out to vote if they have to jump through all these hoops.”
After a few days of checking with election officials, Rustad said she was told she could pick up another ballot at the Bergen County Board of Elections office in Hackensack. There, she got her ballot and voted.
Major changes this election
The COVID-19 pandemic forced major changes to New Jersey’s elections, making this the first time nearly all ballots would be cast by mail instead of in person to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
That move prompted confusion among voters and forced election officials to answer to the confusion and to make sure every registered, active voter got a ballot. Once voters filled out their mail-in ballots, they could take them to a secure drop box or mail them back to their county’s election offices.
But when people noticed that others were getting their ballots and they had not, they frantically contacted election officials looking for answers. Several frustrated potential voters said they feel it is useless contacting their county clerks since it’s almost impossible to get them to respond. Those who do try to make contact said they would go days, even weeks, without hearing back from election officials.
Election workers dealing with problems
Election workers are already overwhelmed with counting and verifying the millions of ballots they are getting. On top of that, they must deal with missing ballots. Signature issues, glitches in their systems and voter confusion are some of the other issues election officials are facing.
The solution now for people who are missing their ballots is to go to their clerk’s office and pick one up, election officials and voting rights groups said. Election offices have extended hours between now and Tuesday. People must make sure they are registered and active voters to get a ballot, and, depending on the county, they may have to sign an affidavit stating they did not get a mail-in ballot. If they cannot do that, the last resort would be to go to their polling location on Election Day and cast a provisional ballot.
Kathleen Eckert from Trenton said she noticed that her neighbors got their ballots, and she didn’t. Eckert contacted the Mercer County clerk and the Superintendent of Elections office. After a failed attempt to find her in the clerk’s system, Eckert said she went down to the office and got a ballot.
“It was frustrating,” she said. “But I wasn’t undeterred, I’m not going to miss this vote.”
The Mercer County clerk, Paula Sollami Covello, says her office and the Superintendent of Elections’ office use the statewide voter registration system. So, failing to find someone in one system and not the other is not possible. She says a small search error could have been the reason for the mistake in Eckert’s case.
With the voter registration system, they can find registered and active voters and issue their ballots. Sometimes someone is listed as an inactive voter, and that could be why they weren’t mailed a ballot. Before every election, sample ballots are mailed and if they are not returned or a voter indicates they have moved, they are marked as inactive voters. In other cases, ballots may have been lost in the mail.
The New Jersey League of Women Voters has provided resources for potential voters and helped answer questions and concerns. They share information on voter registration, how to vote by mail and how to find polling locations. Their goal is to increase voter knowledge and influence public policy to make sure everyone gets a chance to vote.
The League and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the state asking it to allow out-of-state voters to receive their ballots electronically as overseas and military service members do. The League and the ACLU-NJ lost that case, with the Superior Court deciding these changes could not be made so close to Election Day.
As of now, out-of-state voters have to wait for their mail-in ballot to arrive. If it doesn’t arrive on time, they miss out on the chance to vote.
Ron Bannon from Newark is one of those voters still waiting for a ballot. Bannon said he requested and filled out paperwork to have his ballot sent to his temporary address in California. He sent the form via email and never got a response. After attempting to contact the Essex County Board of Elections and the clerk, Bannon said he has yet to receive a ballot or hear from them.
‘It’s not just New Jersey’
“My main concern is that it’s systemic, it’s not just New Jersey, it’s everywhere,” said Bannon. “People’s right to vote is being ignored.”
The Essex County Clerk’s office did not immediately respond for comment.
Lack of communication between voters and election officials seems to be another major reason for the confusion and unanswered questions. Sometimes voters don’t respond to requests on time and election officials are left to scramble for solutions. Other times, voters do everything they can and it’s up to election officials to do their part.
For future elections, Jesse Burns, the executive director of the League of Women Voters in New Jersey, said she hopes to get rid of rules that are no longer useful and may disenfranchise voters.
“New Jersey has a voter registration deadline that is 21 days out and that’s not necessary,” she said. “Many states have Election Day, same-day registration.”
Burns believes that changes like this could make our democracy more inclusive and accessible for everyone. More transparency and easier contact with officials is something voters want for future elections.
If voters can’t get in contact with election officials, they are encouraged to reach out to other organizations, like the League of Women Voters for help with things like finding a polling location or how to read their ballot. But other issues, like why they have not received a ballot, must be dealt with by county election officials directly.
This story was produced with tips from ProPublica’s Electionland project.