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.
Several key questions remain unanswered about voting in 2021. Will voting in person be the primary way to cast a ballot? Will it be another vote-by-mail election? Will New Jersey join other states that allow for early voting?
Gov. Phil Murphy and lawmakers are working on a bill that would allow for early voting and action is expected in the coming weeks. “Early voting, without commenting on the specifics of the bill, I’m all in,” Murphy said earlier this month when it stalled in committee.
If the state last year had an early voting system like the one used by other states, some of the complaints and glitches that plagued the election may have been avoided. In that election, counties sent a paper ballot to every active, registered voter — about 6 million paper ballots. Close to 94% of voters used those mail-in ballots, with about 302,000 voting in person, nearly all by paper provisional ballot.
But as people get ready to choose a governor, new legislators and possibly some changes to the state Constitution — and as it’s still an open question how voting will take place this year — there are key things voters need to know now.
“I hope voters consider January and February these housekeeping months, to make sure all of their information surrounding voting is ready to go,” said Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “And if they have questions about voting, now is the time to contact their county officials or the League of Women voters.”
New Jersey saw a record-breaking number of ballots cast in the 2020 general election — 4.64 million — and Burns wants to keep that momentum going.
Election officials and voting rights activists are already asking voters to get ready for this year’s elections. And that includes paying attention to key dates. NJ Spotlight News and Votebeat looked at some of the things election officials say doing now can help make sure the voting experience goes smoothly. And remember, the COVID-19 pandemic may force changes in these key dates.
Check your registration status
Registered voters should check their registration status and make sure they are labeled as “active.” A voter is labeled as “inactive” when their address cannot be verified. If they do not update their information, they are at risk of being removed from the voting rolls.
County officials also ask voters to notify their election office if they move, change their name, or if someone in their household died.
To update your registration status, use the online voter registration system or print out and mail a paper registration form to your election offices. These forms should also be available at local election offices.
Register to vote
If you have not registered to vote, you can do so online or fill out a paper registration form. The deadline for voter registration is 21 days before an election. Many towns may also have special elections — like fire district and school board elections — so make sure to know what upcoming elections you can vote in.
If you plan on voting in the primaries, the deadline to register may be on or around Tuesday, May 18, 2021, if Election Day is planned for Tuesday, June 8, 2021.
For the general election, the voter registration deadline may be on or around Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, if Election Day is planned for Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.
Elections and deadlines may be subject to change because of regulations to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
Anyone on probation or parole, anyone 17 years old, and newly naturalized citizens can register to vote. Once someone turns 18, they will be eligible to vote in an upcoming election.
Party affiliation deadline
If voters want to participate in the primaries, they will have to make sure they are affiliated with a party. New Jersey’s primary elections are closed, meaning that only voters formally affiliated with parties can vote in them.
“I don’t think voters realize how early the party declaration deadline is,” said Nicole DiRado, administrator for the Union County Board of Elections.
A registered voter currently affiliated with a party has until Wednesday, April 14, 2021, to change their affiliation.
DiRado notes that some vote for a presidential candidate in one party in an election year and then wish to change their affiliation later. She wants to remind the public about the upcoming deadline if they want to change their affiliation to participate in the primaries.
A registered voter currently not affiliated with a political party has until and including Primary Election Day to choose a party.
Both kinds of voters can file a Political Party Affiliation Declaration Form and mail or deliver it to their county Commissioner of Registration or municipal clerk. These forms should also be available at a voter’s local Commissioner of Registration office.
In 2020, voters were exposed to widely spread misleading and false claims about the election. Reporters, researchers and misinformation experts always advise fact-checking claims and stories and looking toward credible news outlets and voting rights groups with a good reputation for information.
In the end, activists and election officials are encouraging registered voters and potential voters to keep learning about the candidates they like and the electoral process as a whole.
“That’s the most important thing, to make sure that at this point that the voter has everything in line that they need to do to be ready to vote, regardless of how the process is going to take place,” said DiRado.
CORRECTION: This story originally stated that voter turnout (as a percentage of registered voters) was record-breaking in the 2020 general election. The record was for the number of votes cast — 4.64 million.