Kean concedes in 7th District race, on eve of deadline for election officials to certify the results

Wrapping up NJ's unprecedented general election: What we know — and still don’t know
Republican Tom Kean Jr., left, conceded to Democratic incumbent Rep. Tom Malinowski in the 7th Congressional District.

Updated 11:15 a.m., Nov. 20 to reflect the extension of the certification deadline for Ocean and Salem counties until Nov. 25.

The final challenger for a congressional seat representing New Jersey conceded Thursday night, the eve of the deadline for most county election officials to certify the results of the state’s unprecedented almost all mail-in general election.

While all the final tallies will not be known for another week or more, after county clerks send their results to the secretary of state, it is clear that New Jersey helped Democrat Joe Biden unseat Donald Trump in the presidential race and is sending U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, also a Democrat, and the entire current 12-person delegation — split between 10 Democrats and two Republicans — back to the House.

In an email to supporters late Thursday, Republican Tom Kean acknowledged his loss in the 7th District and congratulated freshman Democrat Tom Malinowski. That had been the only New Jersey House seat in doubt. While the Associated Press had called it for the incumbent on election night, the race subsequently tightened as later-counted ballots favored Kean. But Malinowski’s lead has held steady at around 5,000, or 1%, for more than a week.

“Congressman Malinowski has my congratulations and my commitment for a bipartisan partnership in my capacity in the New Jersey Senate as we both continue to represent New Jersey in difficult times,” Kean said in the email. The state Senate GOP leader waged two previous unsuccessful bids for federal office.

That means there will be no recounts in any federal races, though there are likely to be others for local races throughout the state. Nov. 20 is also the last day for candidates to request a recount. These, as well as mandated post-election audits, are now the only things standing between county election officials and rest. Election board members or staff in at least some counties have been working seven days a week, often for 12-hour days or longer, since Nov. 3 or weeks earlier — officials started to process and count ballots 10 days before Election Day.

“Look, this is what we do, we live for it, but I miss my kids,” said Nicole DiRado, superintendent of elections in Union County, which had a 69% turnout. “We’ve been doing 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. for weeks, no days off. We haven’t had a day off since Labor Day.”

After the July primary, several counties requested extensions to complete their counts of that election. The law that changed the conduct of this year’s election to one primarily using mail-in ballots appears to prevent any extensions for the general election, so all counting and certifications must be finished by Nov. 20.

Ocean, Salem counties get extra time to certify results

In a survey of a half-dozen county election officials, all indicated they had finished counting or would be finished in time to certify their results on time. But because positive cases of COVID-19 forced two counties, Ocean and Salem, to have to stop counting ballots for several days, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order Thursday night extending the certification deadline — to Nov. 25 — for those two counties only. Murphy’s office did not announce the order until Friday morning.

What delayed many counties from finishing their final counts was the deadline for receipt of ballot “cure” letters allowing voters to certify that they cast a ballot that officials had questioned for an issue with a signature or for some other reason. The deadline for that was Wednesday.

Full data on the ballot curing process, including the number of ballots rejected, is not yet available, although anecdotal reports from several counties indicate that, though the numbers were smaller than expected, the rate of cure letters returned met or exceeded that for the primary, possibly because voters were more informed about the process and because some organizations and campaigns obtained lists of voters at risk of being disenfranchised and told them how to cure ballot deficiencies.

With that process now complete, some counties have begun updating their voter databases to indicate whether ballots were accepted or rejected. That update is not expected to occur statewide until sometime on Nov. 20. Voters can check their ballot status via the state’s ballot tracker.

Preliminary totals for provisional in-person ballots and turnout could be available as early as next week. Estimates so far put the number of New Jerseyans who voted in advance by mail or in person on Election Day at more than 4.5 million, a record number and potentially the highest percentage so far this century.

Getting counting up to speed

Even before the final certifications, lawmakers have begun looking for ways to improve future elections and speed the counting. The Assembly has already begun advancing a bill (A-4830) to require early in-person voting in the state, a concept Murphy endorses.

Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) announced Thursday that he is drafting bills to create a task force to study the mail-in ballot counting process and recommend how to improve it in future elections and to provide grants to counties to help improve their processing of ballots.

“Should constituents choose to vote-by-mail in future elections, we need to have a system in place that will create a quicker vote count method than the one we currently have,” Gopal said. “Our main goal is to ensure each county has the technology they need to provide safe, secure, and efficient vote-by-mail counting methods. Establishing funding for these counties is a positive step towards making sure each board of elections is well equipped to handle vote-by-mail ballots in the years to come if a voter chooses to use that method.”