Historic election prompts calls for voting reforms: NJ 2020, the year of COVID-19

Introduction of true early, in-person voting tops reform list for many
Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
File photo: Oct. 29, 2020, Elcy Londono and other election workers prepared mail-in ballots for counting in Linden, Union County.

The 2020 general election in New Jersey will go down in the history books for both the state’s ability to conduct its first mail-in paper ballot vote under extreme circumstances and for the voters who adapted with relatively few mistakes.

Despite the success, most officials and many voters do not want to conduct future elections the way New Jersey did this year. At the top of the list for many, with the lessons learned from the 2020 elections serving to inform proposed reforms, is incorporating true early, in-person voting with electronic poll books. And while the number of votes rejected represented 1.4% of all ballots cast, a total of 66,506 ballots were rejected, according to the state Division of Elections, a number many advocates consider to be too large.

“As we get ready for the 2021 elections, we need to be doing a deep dive into our entire election infrastructure — not just mail-in voting — to ensure our elections are robust and accessible,” said Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

Moving toward early voting?

Gov. Phil Murphy proclaimed the general election a success and said officials in his administration are still looking into the details of the voting and how to improve on it during a future election conducted in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic or similar crisis. Murphy points most often to allowing early voting in person and adopting electronic poll books. Last August, a Senate committee endorsed one early voting bill (S-99), and two months later an Assembly committee approved a different version (A-4830). Both bills currently are stalled in their respective appropriations committees.

Using electronic poll books appears to be the only way the state could conduct the same kind of large-scale mail-in balloting as what occurred this year and still allow for some in-person voting by machine.

With the state dealing with the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Murphy made a host of election-related changes, beginning with allowing candidates to submit electronic signatures on their nominating petitions, rather than going door-to-door, and ordering that the May 12 nonpartisan municipal elections be conducted entirely by mail.

He delayed the June primary until July and ordered that all registered Democrats and Republicans automatically get a mail-in ballot and that all unaffiliated voters receive a ballot application. Because mail problems led to large numbers of ballots being rejected for arriving too late in the May election, Murphy also extended the number of days a ballot could be received after polls closed and still count. He also put at least five secure ballot drop boxes in every county. And to answer loud pleas from those who wanted to vote in person, he required at least one polling place to be open in each municipality.

More changes for general election 

Lessons learned in the first two elections brought additional changes for the general election. Murphy first issued an executive order essentially turning New Jersey into a vote-by-mail state, then codified that after the Trump campaign and state Republican Party filed a federal lawsuit asserting, among other contentions, that the governor did not have the power to rewrite election rules without legislative approval. Among the major changes was a provision allowing counties to begin processing early mail-in votes on Oct. 24, 10 days before Election Day, in order to have enough time to tally all the ballots to meet an early December deadline to certify the presidential results.

Only five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — conduct their elections entirely by mail as a matter of course, and most of these gradually changed to vote-by-mail systems over a period of years. In New Jersey, county officials had just a couple of months to adapt.

County officials mailed out some 6 million ballots to all active registered voters. Some counties had to get additional scanners and other equipment, and hire additional staff — as well as use members of the National Guard — to process and count all the extra paper ballots. They installed additional ballot drop boxes. And they still had to open at least one polling location for each town.

There were a host of problems, from some voters not getting a ballot to others getting more than one. And on Election Day, some voters were confused about where to vote when their typical polling place was closed, and others who went to the right place early in the morning found it not yet set up or the doors locked.

A record number of voters

Despite the problems, a record number of New Jerseyans cast ballots, 4.64 million. As a percentage of registered voters, it was not quite so remarkable: The 72.3% turnout was the highest only since 2008, when 72.7% voted in the presidential election won by Barack Obama.

Nearly every vote cast was on paper. That was more than 3 1/2 times greater than the previous paper ballot record of 1.28 million cast in the 2020 primary and 10 times greater than the previous general election total of 400,136 in the 2018 midterms.

It took workers in many counties the full time allotted to finish counting the ballots, a process that stretched for nearly a month, including the early tallies 10 days before Nov. 3. Board of elections officials and workers labored seven days a week in some counties to make the Nov. 20 deadline. Two counties — Ocean and Salem — still needed brief extensions as the spread of COVID-19 among election workers halted their counting for days. One Salem election worker died due to the virus.

New Jerseyans picked the ultimate winner in the presidential election, Democrat Joe Biden, by a 16-point margin. They also sent all incumbents back to Congress: Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat, along with 10 Democratic House members and two Republicans. The outcomes of only a couple of races were still in doubt the day after the election, with Republican Tom Kean not conceding to incumbent Tom Malinowski until the eve of the certification deadline. Malinowski won by about 5,000 votes, or a little less than one point.

Could cost tens of millions of dollars

Like Murphy and some lawmakers, advocates say the lessons from the 2020 elections provide fodder for actions the state should take to ensure that the 2021 balloting — in which the governor and the entire Legislature are up for election — proceeds more smoothly. If the COVID-19 pandemic continues to plague the state, and given it is unlikely the state will reach herd immunity due to a vaccine by the June primary, mail-in balloting is likely to be a major component of next year’s elections.

To do that, and still allow for people to vote on machines if they desire, lawmakers are going to have to act on pending legislative reform proposals that include true early in-person voting and the use of electronic poll books that could cost tens of millions of dollars. To implement such changes, make the needed purchase and give county officials enough time to adjust to them, they should be passed soon.

Burns adds permitting same-day voter registration to the list and said that putting all of the measures in place would thrust New Jersey into the forefront nationally: “When you take a 360 degree approach and look at all of these reforms together, New Jersey can have one of the most inclusive and secure election systems in the country.”