NJ’s experience with 2020 elections, an invaluable teacher for coming contests

Jeff Pillets | January 19, 2021 | NJ Decides 2021, Politics
Advocates and experts agree, New Jersey did a remarkable job rolling out paper ballots and ballot boxes on an unforgiving schedule. Now it has a remarkable chance to learn from what it did right
Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
Portion of a New Jersey mail-in ballot

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.

Confronted with a national health emergency that disrupted familiar Election Day traditions, New Jersey voters still managed to turn out in record numbers for 2020’s historic election.

“What happened was kind of a miracle when you think about it,” said Ingrid Reed, the former director of the New Jersey Project at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics and a longtime advocate for voting reform.

“But just how did we pull it off?  What did we do right in this election and where did we go wrong? If we don’t take a good hard look at the election now we’d be missing a great chance to improve the voting experience for everybody,” she added.

Reed,  who has been brainstorming with a broad group of  policy experts and other advocates, said there’s consensus on the need for an independent study on  the 2020 election that would dig deep into state and county voter data and collect the views of frontline workers who basically created the vote-by-mail machinery on the fly.

After Gov. Phil Murphy ordered last year’s election be conducted nearly all by mail  as the pandemic emerged, county officials faced a series of tight deadlines and logistical hurdles to make sure all voters received ballots. Those officials suddenly found themselves reviewing thousands of ballot signatures and battling balky state computers that spit out bad addresses and district data for voters.

Finding a cure for unreadable ballots

There were also new demands to “cure” illegible ballots by recontacting voters through a U.S. mail system that was equally stressed. On top of it all was a stream of complaints, many hostile, from confused and angry voters who did not like or did not understand the new voting procedures.

“These are the kinds of patterns and concerns we need to drill into, because we’ll certainly be facing many of the same issues in this year’s gubernatorial race,” Reed said.

Other voting advocates embraced Reed’s call for a close look at the 2020 voting process. More than ever, they said, New Jersey needs a bird’s eye view of the electoral process, an accessible clearinghouse for  data and a place where  local officials can share their experiences and lay out what worked and what didn’t.

Take the use of ballot boxes, for example.

Last year, prompted by fears that the U.S. Postal Service was faltering, counties set up more than 300 special boxes to accept ballots that proved wildly popular with many voters. But people in some locales complained they couldn’t find the boxes, or that their placement favored suburban residents over city dwellers.

Now, some frontline election officials are chafing under a new law that calls for installing hundreds of new boxes — one in every town — at a cost of about $5,500 per box, as well as emptying them daily and installing video surveillance. Larger counties like Bergen and Camden, with scores of towns, suddenly have an expensive list of new responsibilities.

Where do boxes do the most good?

“Was the placement of the drop boxes fair and equitable? Were they accessible to handicapped voters and voters of color?” said Jess Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “It would be nice to have data showing where we need more boxes and which voters really used them.”

The complexities of the recent election, Burns said, make it more important to have a data-based overview of voting patterns. The state should take a more active role in providing such usable information for local voting administrators, she said.

“There should be a record of what the voting experience was like, with the focus always on making it easier to vote and serving people who are least served by the system now,” Burns said. “After all the recent traumas, it’s important we have a better understanding of how to improve our democracy, and how fragile it is.”

Renée Steinhagen, a public interest lawyer and executive director of New Jersey Appleseed, a nonprofit public-interest law firm, said the state should debrief election officials across New Jersey and then release detailed findings that would help everyone navigate the new voting environment.

As the state leaps into another big election this year, it will be harder to enact improvements such as same-day registration and early in-person voting if we don’t have a solid record of what really works, Steinhagen said.

Steinhagen and the other advocates have questions, including:

How many mail-in ballots were rejected? For what reason? What percentage of those were cured? How many mailed ballots came back as “undeliverable”? How many ballots came in after the election? Did county workers have enough time, space and personnel to process and count the millions of ballots that came in? How well did the state do in educating voters and marketing the mail-in vote?

“This was an election of enormous complexity, and we know a lot about it went right,” Steinghagen said. “The fact that voters embraced the use of paper ballots alone is a great thing.  We finally got a real paper trail, real audits.”

“But can we do it again,” Steinhagen said. “Will voters continue to embrace things like paper ballots and drop boxes?”

The best way to answer questions like that, Reed said, is simply to be “grown-up” and take a sober look at what we did.

“Before we can say what went right and what went wrong, there’s a more basic question: Just what happened,” she said. “The ‘what’ will tell us a lot.”