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.
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, many potential voters reported they didn’t receive their mail-in ballots. Others said they got two ballots. Or they were sent ballots for people who no longer lived at that address. And talk of dead people getting ballots fueled claims of voter fraud.
The reason? This year for the first time in New Jersey, every registered voter was sent a ballot for a predominantly mail-in election amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And the rosters of registered voters, known as poll books, can have wrong addresses, duplicate names and other errors that, yes, include registered voters who have died but whose names are still listed.
In some counties, election officials are starting to correct those rosters, looking for such errors. But there’s no deadline to do so, and no statewide effort to make sure all the information is up to date. Election officials are trying to catch up with the many requests for changes and say voters themselves can help.
Counties confirmed they received many complaints about missing ballots and confusion among potential voters. Many of the errors this year, officials said, were likely caused because people didn’t update local election offices with their new address or name change. Small search errors or glitches could also have caused registered voters to not get their ballots on time.
“There has to be some responsibility on the voter to tell us that they moved. Or if people get mail for somebody that doesn’t live there anymore, they have to return it,” said Nicole DiRado, administrator for the Union County Board of Elections.
Need to notify
County officials in Hunterdon and Gloucester counties say the same. Voters must notify their election office as soon as they move, change their name or that someone in their household died. With this, election workers can update their voter registration system and make sure people get their ballots or remove people from their rolls.
Counties have to sort through ballots returned by the postal service as undeliverable mail and the thousands of requests to update information in their voter registration system. New Jersey uses the Statewide Voter Registration System, or SVRS, which all 21 counties have access to. In every election, officials must update the registration status or changes for all registered voters and add new ones. But if they are not notified, they cannot make any changes. Election mail will go out to whichever name and address they have on file.
Stephanie Salvatore, superintendent of elections in Gloucester County, says when voters change their name and register to vote with their new name, the system that manages the poll books — the roster of registered voters — will then recognize that as two separate voters. This year, after election officials received calls complaining about duplicate ballots and other apparent irregularities, workers got rid of any duplicates by matching names and birth dates.
Salvatore and other election officials said they heard complaints about voter fraud in these situations. They want to assure voters that they can tell if someone tries to vote twice or submits a ballot for someone that died since every ballot has to be verified. This year, mail-in ballots were automatically sent to every active registered voter in the state. Issues were expected since people don’t usually think to notify their election offices of changes to their name or address, says Salvatore.
Hunterdon County has a similar process, with officials there saying they are going through their data to find duplicates.
A ‘daunting task’
“It’s an unbelievably daunting task,” said Beth Thompson, supervisor of the Hunterdon County Board of Elections.
In the case of undeliverable mail, workers may try to track down the voter. They also have to deal with the many requests to make changes, especially in a presidential and general election, when more people want to vote. On top of that, recounts, certifications and other election-related tasks are priorities, election officials said, so cleaning up the poll book system isn’t always at the top of the urgent task list. And the bigger the county, the more voters there are to deal with. County officials hope to have their voter registration systems updated for the next statewide election, the primary election in June when candidates for governor will top the ballot.
Regardless, officials say that the sooner a voter notifies them of changes, the sooner updates can be made and the easier the voting process will be.
Dealing with voters who move out of state can be another difficult issue, say election officials. Some states can communicate to them about a New Jersey voter who has moved to their state but not all do so. So, election mail can still be sent to the New Jersey address while that voter remains on the rolls in New Jersey. More streamlined communication between states could be a solution, in case the voter doesn’t notify their local election office of their move.
“I think there needs to be some kind of federal election alert system,” said Salvatore. “I do think maybe that would be a solution that can help everybody, not just New Jersey.”