Missing ballots, sealed envelopes — NJ’s first mail-in election sees glitches

Officials anticipated problems in the first state-wide vote-by-mail general election, and they are starting to see them as voters mail in ballots
Credit: (AP Photo/Christina Paciolla)
Oct. 7, 2020: With sons 1-year-old Colin and and 5-year-old James looking on, Nicole Flaherty helps as her 7-year-old daughter Madelyn places ballot in a drop box in Cinnaminson.

New Jersey officials said they expected this year’s mostly mail-in ballot election would have some glitches. They were right.

Voters have been alerting Electionland — a collaboration among NJ Spotlight News, ProPublica and newsrooms across the country to monitor this pandemic-tinged election  —  about problems with ballots here.

Several are not easily answered by the published advice from state and county elections officials, and voters with issues say it has been difficult to reach election workers because telephones are busy or going unanswered. In some cases, election offices are closed.

To minimize the spread of COVID-19, which appears to be making a resurgence in the state, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law requiring counties to send a mail-in ballot to all active registered voters to encourage people to vote by mail. About half the typical number of polling locations — including at least one per municipality — will be open on Election Day for those who prefer to vote in person; they will cast a paper provisional ballot.

Range of problems

This is the first time New Jersey is using universal mail-in balloting and the process has not been perfect, nor was it expected to be. State and county officials have created videos and social-media postings to try to explain how to vote by mail and answer the most common questions.

Still, voters have contacted Electionland to report some thornier problems.

  • A Fort Lee woman and her parents did not receive their ballots, which were sent out at the end of September. Bergen County officials told her they sent replacements but these too had not arrived as of Tuesday. She initially was told she could not pick up ballots because the office was closed. She contacted her state senator, Loretta Weinberg, and Electionland. On Tuesday, an official told her she could pick up her ballot and that the office was mailing ballots to her parents.
  • A Colonia woman accidentally detached the certificate affirming that she filled out the ballot herself from the inner envelope of her mail-in ballot — a mistake which invalidates her vote — and sent it back before realizing what she had done. She said she called to request a replacement and was put on hold three times and never got an answer. She has now put her request in writing but has yet to receive a new ballot.
  • Two other men reported envelope problems. One received an unsealed mail-in ballot package, but was able to confirm that the ballot and return envelopes had not been tampered with. Another received his package with an inner return envelope that was already sealed and is trying to request a replacement.

A spokeswoman for the state Division of Elections did not return a request for comment Monday, nor did two county officials.

Persistence is recommended

Uyen “Winn” Khuong, the executive director of Action Together New Jersey who operates the website VotebymailNJ.org, said calling and emailing county officials should always be a voter’s first step when facing a problem with mail-in balloting, but she said staffers are very busy. She suggests documenting contacts and attempted contacts and using other methods, such as filling out the necessary forms either online or in paper, as well.

Khuong said officials knew there would be some issues, with some 6 million ballots being mailed. Ultimately, for problems that cannot be solved, Khuong said New Jerseyans do have the option of voting in person on Nov. 3.

“Go to the polling place and vote via provisional ballot,” she said. “That’s always the fail-safe.”

In addition to mail-in balloting, New Jersey has given voters the option of voting in person. But because everyone has already received a ballot through the mail, those who vote in person will do so using a paper, provisional ballot. These will be counted after all the mail-in ballots to ensure no one is voting twice — once by mail and once in person.

In its effort to track issues that may prevent people from voting this year, Electionland is collecting reports of problems from voters. There are a number of ways to send tips on issues ranging from not receiving a ballot to voter intimidation: Text VOTE to 81380, message WhatsApp 850-909-8683, send a Facebook Messenge to m.me/electionland, tweet at @electionland or submit a tip online.

In addition, here are some tips for voters on the process:

WATCH: How to fill out your mail-in ballot in NJ for 2020 election

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