Despite problems, Murphy sees success in state’s first mail-in election

Changes like early voting, stronger signature checking may be coming
Credit: Kalimah White /Montclair State University
Nov. 3, 2020: Residents fill out their ballots at the Montclair Municipal Building on Election Day.

New Jersey’s mostly mail-in election was a success, but the state will look more deeply at how well the process worked with an eye toward future improvements, the most important of which would allow for early in-person voting, Gov. Phil Murphy said Thursday.

The total number of voters has surpassed 4 million, which is a record, though not yet a record percentage of registered voters. So far, about 63% of the 6.49 million people the state Division of Elections shows were registered to vote in the general election are known to have cast ballots. There are still an unknown number of outstanding ballots to count. The highest turnout this century was 73% in 2008.

Murphy said there were “some glitches” on Election Day, but that is always the case. On the whole, he said he was very pleased with the conduct of the election but said his administration will conduct a post-mortem to fully evaluate everything and make recommendations for improvement. Regardless of the results of that, Murphy repeated his call for lawmakers to pass and send him legislation to allow for early in-person voting.

“The mail piece looks like it worked really well, the day-of looks like it worked really well, but I’d like to see us get in-person, early voting,” Murphy said. “Make the investments in the electronic poll books and allow folks to vote by machine when they’re voting in person either early or on Election Day.”

The Assembly took an initial step in that direction last month when a committee approved A-4830, a bill that would set parameters for early voting in a few locations in each county starting 15 days before an election. Murphy acknowledged the cost — including $20 million or $30 million for “electronic poll books” that would allow poll workers to check that a person has not already voted — could prove challenging given the state’s already tenuous budget situation.

County election officials report problems

A number of county election officials might disagree with Murphy’s assertion that the election went well. They have complained about a number of problems, many related to the statewide voter registration system and difficulties in matching handwritten ballot signatures for voters who registered through state motor vehicle offices or online.

Paper ballots take much longer to count than machine tallies due to officials’ need to verify each signature, open envelopes and flatten the ballots before scanning them. It appears that about 3.18 million ballots have been tallied so far, about 78% of the 4.06 million received through 9 a.m. Thursday.

There were also Election Day problems in some of the state’s cities, including six polling places in Newark that opened more than an hour late and a fourth where the doors were locked and voters had to bang loudly to be let in.

Republicans were highly critical of Murphy’s decision, announced in mid-August and codified by the end of the month, to conduct the general election primarily using mail-in ballots, urging that people be allowed to vote on a machine on Election Day. The governor did so amid fears that COVID-19 infections could be on the rise with the cooler weather; the daily number of cases and hospitalizations, indeed, began rising again to more than 1,000 a day in mid-October. Ultimately, the GOP also urged their supporters to use mail-in ballots.

Different types of voting are ‘the perfect constellation’

Murphy said he understands that “the whole notion of voting by paper is a bone in some people’s throats” and he would also like to get back to allowing in-person voting by machine. This year, without the electronic poll books already in hand, there was no way to permit that and ensure that people had not voted more than once — first by mail-in ballot and then on Election Day.

The issue might not be as crucial in the future if the presence of COVID-19 wanes or if there is a vaccine that protects most people from getting infected by the deadly virus that has killed more than 16,400 in New Jersey.

“Early voting requires an investment but we can do away with the provisional ballot that we had to live with this year because we couldn’t get the investment done in time,” Murphy said. “All that is subject to whether or not we’re in the throes of a pandemic which, God willing, we won’t be in the years to come.”

Regardless, the governor said he wants to see an election system that combines “aggressive mail-in voting,” early in-person voting and Election Day voting on machines. “That, to me, is the perfect constellation.”