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.
A full two weeks after Election Day, officials across New Jersey were still counting ballots Tuesday, even as candidates in some close races — and one very close race — chased more potential votes ahead of a key deadline Wednesday.
Among the last pile of potential votes still outstanding are thousands of mail-in ballots that local officials initially rejected in recent weeks because they had illegible signatures or were missing other essential information.
Many voters who were notified that their ballots were flawed responded and were able to fix, or “cure” them quickly. But, in all 21 counties, hundreds or thousands of people never answered letters from their county election board and have only until Wednesday to do so.
“We’ve sent out more than 3,300 cure letters and so far have only about one-third of them back,’” said Jamie Sheehan, a member of the Bergen County Board of Elections. “A lot of people out there may have never even opened up their letters and don’t even know their votes have not been counted.”
The biggest race in the balance is that for New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District, still too close to call and leaving the candidates seeking out potential votes among the uncured ballots. (The AP had called the race for Malinowski immediately after the election.) Several local contests are also still to be decided.
In the congressional race, the incumbent, Democrat Tom Malinowski, had a lead of only about 4,500 votes Tuesday against challenger Tom Kean Jr., a Republican state lawmaker. In recent days, Kean has cut substantially into Malinowski’s lead as the vote count continued.
List of ‘uncured’ votes is public information
Armed with a list of “uncured” ballots obtained via public information requests, the Malinowski campaign was pursuing potential voters in several areas, including Somerset County, where some 9,000 ballots still had not been counted according to some estimates.
Malinowski campaign officials declined to say how their hunt for uncured ballots was progressing, but they seemed optimistic that the strategy would pay off.
“We need to be patient and have faith in the democratic process,” said Daniel Fleiss, the Malinowksi campaign manager, in a press release. “But that doesn’t mean we’re taking anything for granted. Our volunteers are reaching out to voters whose ballots have been rejected.”
Last week, Malinowski sued five counties within the voting district for a list of so-called “naked” ballots that had been returned without inner envelopes bearing a voter’s signature. The campaign had hoped to pursue these and ask voters to cure such ballots to obtain more votes.
But the suit was dropped earlier this week. Campaign officials said they did not have time to cure these ballots before the Wednesday, Nov. 18 deadline.
The Kean campaign did not return messages seeking comment for this story. Officials with the campaign, however, have said they remain on a path to win. Malinowski’s election in 2018 was the first victory for a Democrat in the 7th District in more than 50 years.
More than 4.4 million of some 6 million eligible voters cast ballots in New Jersey this election, the state’s first mostly mail-in contest. The record turnout tested frontline election workers as they worked to manage widespread voter confusion with the mail-in process.
Ballots must be certified by Nov. 20
County election boards have until Friday to officially certify their ballots. Several counties surveyed Tuesday said they would easily meet the deadline as they count the final returned cured ballots and any remaining provisional ballots.
Provisional ballots were used by voters who showed up to polling places on Election Day without their mail-in ballots. Some counties said they rejected a portion of such ballots because the voters were not registered or otherwise not eligible to vote. But most local officials said they worked to accommodate the provisional voters, if possible.
Camden County, for example, rejected just 1,343 provisional ballots out of some 24,000 received as of Tuesday afternoon.
“We did our best to cure these if possible, but time is running out,” said Rich Ambrosino of the county election board.
Voting right advocates were also continuing to work to preserve as many ballots as possible before today’s deadline.
Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, said her group, aided by other advocates, has contacted about 5,000 people across the state who received ballot cure notifications but never returned them. Many, she said, were surprised to discover their ballots had been rejected and eagerly followed through on fixing them.
“People want to know their vote wasn’t thrown away,’” Burns said.
For a handful of candidates in tight local races, the large number of unreturned cure letters represents a potential treasure trove of support and they are in hot pursuit. In the Bergen County borough of Fair Lawn, candidates in one local race are only about 10 votes apart.
“They’re actually out there chasing cures,” Sheehan said. “It could be the difference between winning and losing.”