Placement of ballot drop boxes far from ideal in NJ. Some voters must travel miles to reach one

Only two boxes in entire city of Newark. Burlington County voters can have a 30-mile drive to get to theirs
Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Oct. 15, 2020: A man deposits his ballot in one of the two ballot drop boxes in Newark.

Scattered around New Jersey are 329 secure drop boxes where voters can place their ballots in advance of next Tuesday’s general election. But the location of those boxes — determined by county boards of elections — does not always seem designed to maximize voter convenience.

Newark, New Jersey’s most populous city, has only two boxes, both located at public buildings less than a half-mile from one another, while three of the city’s five wards have none. Residents living along the borders of the North and South wards, each of which has about 56,000 residents, have to travel almost 3.5 miles to get to one of the boxes in the center of the city, an analysis by NJ Spotlight News found. But in six northwestern suburban Essex County communities with a combined population of just 41,000, there are six boxes, one per town, with no one living more than 2.8 miles from a box.

Questions about ballot box placement have also arisen in Burlington and Salem counties.

For some, this in turn has raised questions about access to voting, particularly for Blacks and Hispanics, in a presidential election for which Gov. Phil Murphy took the unprecedented step of ordering that a ballot be sent to every active registered voter due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

As of late Wednesday morning, almost 2.8 million New Jerseyans had voted, about 47% of all those who got a ballot. But an additional 1 million are expected to vote by Nov. 3. People can still use a mail-in ballot through Nov. 3 and placement of drop boxes is particularly important now, given officials are warning that ballots mailed now are not likely to arrive by Election Day and the state anticipates as many as 60% of ballots voted may be deposited in the two days before the election. State law allows for all ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 and received by Nov. 10 to be counted. Voters can also go to the polls in person and vote by provisional paper ballot between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Election Day.

The first real test

New Jersey jumped into full, statewide mail-in balloting due to Gov. Phil Murphy’s concerns about voting safety during the pandemic. But except for the small-turnout primary election in July, this is a first large-scale testing of the process.

The state provided counties with several hundred boxes to make it easier for people to vote and county boards of elections, which are made up of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, decided where to place them. Local elections officials did not have much time to consider where to put the boxes given Murphy only signed the changes into law on Aug. 28. County boards had wide discretion in placing the boxes. Some said they had to scramble to do so, and didn’t get them all placed until recently.

For future elections, the law sets specific requirements for drop box placement, including that some be located on college campuses.

Henal Patel, director of the democracy and justice program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said election officials have had a difficult job this year and overall have done a great job.

“But there are certain issues where there are problems,” she said, pointing in particular to the placement of a majority of boxes near — or sometimes directly in front of — police stations, where some voters may feel uncomfortable. “It’s not a transparent process … And moving them is a problem.”

Guidance from the state dated Sept. 25 requires boards “to the best of their ability, to place ballot drop boxes based on geographic location and population density to best serve the voters of each county.” The factors they were to consider include concentrations of population, concentrations of those who historically have used more mail-in ballots, geographic distance, voter convenience and proximity to public transportation. The boxes have to be secured to the ground and under 24-hour video monitoring, and the state’s guidance stated “the easiest way to provide video surveillance is to position your ballot drop box within view of an existing video surveillance system.”

Where most drop boxes are located

Counties wound up placing about three-quarters of the boxes at county or municipal offices, though some officials placed boxes at libraries, recreation centers, a train station and even two strip malls.

The guidance states that “A rule of thumb to consider is one drop box for every 10,000-15,000 voters.” The state did not provide that many: A spokeswoman for the state Division of Elections said the state provided each county with between 11 and 18 boxes, depending on the county’s size. It was up to counties to buy more if they so chose. At least three — Essex, Middlesex and Union — did.

Essex County placed a total of 24 boxes. It put one in each municipality, with two in Newark and in West Orange, which had the third-largest number of registered voters as of Oct. 9 (East Orange had about 7,000 more than West Orange). That means even Essex Fells, which had 2,100 registrants, got its own box. Newark, by contrast, had close to 163,000 registered voters. Under the state’s guidance, Newark should have received at least 10 boxes.

The green dots represent the location of drop boxes in Essex County.

Just across Newark Bay, in Hudson County, officials put six boxes in Jersey City, the state’s second-largest city. Other municipalities with smaller populations that got more boxes than Newark are Trenton — which has four — and Edison, Hamilton in Mercer County, Toms River and Vinland, which each have three.

Members of the Essex County Board of Elections and the board’s clerk did not return messages seeking comment about their decisions on placement of the boxes.

Patel said the first listing of Essex County drop boxes had only one in Newark.

“We raised the alarm … I remember hearing back from officials saying, ‘Oh no, there’s definitely going to be a second and they’re also discussing a third.’ And we said, ‘OK, fair, though we know there should be more,” she said.

Disappointed with Newark’s allotment

They were disappointed that the two boxes are so close to each other: One is at the Essex County Hall of Records in the Central Ward; the other is about a half-mile away at Newark City Hall, just across the border from the Central Ward in the East Ward.

Officials in other counties said that, depending on their size and the number of boxes they got, they tried to distribute them geographically either in the most populous municipalities or so that no voter would have to travel too far to get to a box.

“We tried to space them throughout the county, where no one would have to go more than one town away to get to one,” said Richard Miller, a member of the Bergen County Board of Elections. Bergen, which is the most populous county, has 18 boxes for 70 municipalities. “They’ve been very well received. We are picking up ballots twice a day now.”

Burlington County — New Jersey’s largest county geographically at 820 square miles — concentrated its boxes in the more populous, western communities. Voters at the eastern tip of Bass River, with a population of fewer than 1,500, have about a 30-mile drive to the nearest box in Browns Mills.

“During the Primary Election, we were given five drop boxes. For the General Election, the state provided us with an additional eight, giving us 13 total for 40 municipalities. We would have loved to have a drop box in each of Burlington County’s 40 municipalities, but with supplies limited, the bipartisan board of elections decided where they should be strategically located to be accessible to the most voters,” said Joe Dugan, chairman of the county board of elections, in a statement. “The locations were selected by the board of elections based on geography but also population and where boxes could be placed under video surveillance 24/7.”

Morris and Salem counties added boxes

Both Morris and Salem counties wound up adding boxes to their initial plans at the request of local officials.

Salem County, for instance, added boxes last week in two locations, including Salem city outside the county administration building. Jeanmaire Waddington, the registrar of the board of elections, said the county initially had not placed a box outside the office because the board office was open to accept ballots. But since the office is not open 24 hours a day and officials requested a box, the county installed one. All but two counties have placed at least one box in the county seat or at a county office building. Waddington said election officials considered “population and walkable locations” in determining where to place its boxes.

Electionland, which includes NJ Spotlight News as a member, and the 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline run by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, received a complaint in mid-October from a voter concerned about possible voter suppression in Salem city because, at that time, there was no box there. The city has the county’s largest minority population — 60% Black and about 12% Hispanic, according to the 2018 US Census American Community Survey.  The county also added a box last week in Penns Grove, which is 38% Hispanic and 32% Black. Waddington said the additional boxes could not be added until then due to issues involved in getting cameras installed at each location. Now 13 of the county’s 15 municipalities have boxes.

Newark is also a minority-majority city, with almost nine in 10 residents Black, Hispanic or Asian.

A voter can place a ballot in any box in the county where he lives or bring one to his local polling place on Election Day. For those who own a car, driving to a box a few miles away may not be a problem. But for city residents who may not own a car, putting the nearest box three miles away could make it less likely a person who distrusts the Postal Service and fears exposure to the coronavirus on Election Day will vote.

Patel said she does not think that officials set out to try to make it harder for people of color to vote.

Unintended consequences?

“I won’t speak to individual election officials … but I don’t think, overall, broadly, that counties were intending to do this,” she said. “However, I think the issue is that they’re not considering the impact when making these decisions and that’s a big problem.”

The fact that the boards are comprised of Democrats and Republicans indicates that many are “making these decisions in partisan ways” and that may influence box placement, Patel continued.

“If you have some of these suburban areas, if you didn’t place one there, you know people are going to complain,” she said. “Whether that’s something that comes in as a factor, it certainly feels like it.”

Uyen “Winn” Khuong, founder and executive director of Action Together NJ and an advocate of voting by mail, noted that the law requires that colleges and towns with at least 5,000 residents will get at least one drop box beginning next year. She said she is working on other reforms, including making boards of elections nonpartisan, as opposed to bipartisan, which could help.

Said Khuong: “Expanding voter access or minimizing voter suppression is dependent on the number of ballot boxes, who decides where they are located (and) where they are located.”