Editor’s Note: This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
Meeting in a former juvenile detention center in Elizabeth, a little-known Union County board convened Friday afternoon to play a critical role in American democracy.
Signing off one-by-one on scores of local, state and national elections across the county’s cities and towns, the four members of the county’s board of elections took about an hour to certify the election results in what has been one of the most unusual elections in the nation’s history.
But what is usually a routine and mundane process was anything but this year, as allegations fly nationwide concerning the legitimacy of the election.
“It gets me very upset when I hear ‘fraud,’” said County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi. “Election officials are very cognizant about the integrity of the ballot and the chain of custody of the ballot.”
Officials signed off on packet after packet of the most up-to-date results for all the elections around the county, including for county sheriff and freeholders, local boards of education, Congress and, of course, the presidential election.
John DeSimone, the board’s chairman; Clara T. Harelik, secretary and commissioner of registration; Mary Ellen Harris and Marie Oakie, commissioners, sat at socially distanced tables and signed away. Other administrators were present to facilitate the process. Although the public was not allowed in the room because of COVID-19 regulations, the county livestreamed the event on Facebook. NJ Spotlight News was the only news outlet in the room.
Getting the proper count
It is not the most exciting thing to watch, but it is how counties certify that all votes were counted properly. In this federal election year, it will allow New Jersey to send U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat, and the 12 incumbent House members who all won reelection, back to Washington, as well as allow 14 Electoral College members to cast their votes for Democrat Joe Biden for president.
Copies of the official results go to the state and the Democratic and Republican committees in the county, and another is kept on file.
Union County received about 236,000 vote-by-mail ballots and about 20,000 provisional ballots. Election officials counted a total of about 258,000 votes, including overseas and machine votes, from Election Day.
The certifying process went smoothly with no objections, officials said. After an hour of signing paper after paper, members shook off their hands and massaged them. When all the results were certified, Rajoppi and DeSimone congratulated officials for all the hard work put into the election. They noted that even with the crunch of time, everyone excelled in their jobs.
Rajoppi said the allegations of fraud undermine the system, and she wants voters to know their ballot is safe, and their vote is counted as long as it’s valid.
In Camden County also, as the board of elections there certified its results Friday, the public was able to watch virtually while documents were passed from one member to another, signed and passed on. According to that county’s now official results, close to 274,000 people voted — roughly 92% of them using mail-in ballots.
“It was a complete hands-on operation day in and day out, seven days a week,” said Donna Robinson Taylor, the board chair. “It was incredible. I can’t thank everyone enough.”
Several members of the public watched the certification virtually and offered their thanks.
“I want to commend this board during this unprecedented time for your hard work and dedication,” said Peter Heinbaugh of Gloucester. “I trust our county.”
Vote audits still must be done
Counties still have some work to do before finalizing this year’s general election. One of those tasks includes random audits of votes for every county. State law requires a sample audit for all counties that use paper ballots in some way. This year, because nearly every vote was cast on a paper ballot, all counties will conduct audits. As with other election processes, the audits will be conducted in a bipartisan manner, with both Democrats and Republicans reading the ballots and recording the votes.
Camden County will hold its audit on Nov. 30 and Union County on Dec. 1.
Extensions for Ocean, Salem counties
On Thursday night, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order that extended the certification deadline to Nov. 25 for Ocean and Salem counties, after they both reported positive COVID-19 cases among election workers.
According to the order, which Murphy’s office made public Friday morning, Ocean County lost five days of counting after 17 workers tested positive for the virus. After the counting facility and machines were cleaned, several more tested positive, necessitating additional cleaning.
In Salem County, the entire complement of 50 temporary or permanent staff, National Guard and election board members either tested positive or had to quarantine due to exposure to those who had tested positive, making it impossible to meet the deadline, the order stated.
These counties now have no later than Nov. 25 to finish their counts, certify the results and provide them to the secretary of state.
Murphy’s order also gave every county an extra week to conduct post-election audits. These are now required to be completed by Dec. 11, rather than Dec. 4.