Voting in next month’s New Jersey primary is going back to basics, although those who may have voted for the first time last year or have a short memory may need a refresher in what a normal election looks like.
The default way to cast a ballot will be in-person, using a machine. Mail-in ballots are available, but will not automatically be sent to all registrants, and they will have to be postmarked on Election Day at the latest. The only real holdovers from the 2020 elections that were upended by the coronavirus pandemic are the secure ballot drop boxes, which can be used to bypass the postal service to return ballots.
Officials are expecting confusion among at least some voters, given last year’s elections were so different from the norm.
Back to the old normal
“Basically, things are back to normal,” said Evelynn Caterson, chair of the Atlantic County Board of Elections. But Caterson said she expects some people will be confused by that, “which is why we are trying to get the word out.”
For starters, anyone who wants to vote in the primary for Democratic or Republican nominees for governor, Legislature or county or local office, must be registered. The deadline for registering is Tuesday, May 18. People can check whether they are registered online. They also can register online.
Last year, with COVID-19 raging through the state, Gov. Phil Murphy postponed the primary by a month and made it a mostly mail-in election, with all registered Democrats and Republicans automatically receiving a ballot and all independents getting an application to request a partisan ballot. While COVID-19 cases and deaths declined over the summer, Murphy worried that the virus would spike again by the November general election. It did and Murphy ordered ballots sent to all active registered voters, more than 6 million people. A smaller number of in-person polling sites were open last year for people to cast paper provisional ballots, with machines only available to certain voters with disabilities.
Voters embraced the convenience of mail-in ballots, with close to 88% using them in the 2020 primary and almost 94% choosing a mail-in ballot in the general election. A record high number of New Jerseyans voted last November, 4.64 million, with only about 302,000 people voting in person at polling places. That represented 72.3% of registrants, the highest turnout since 2008.
Smaller turnouts expected
Turnouts in this gubernatorial election year are not expected to be nearly as large. In the 2017 primary, some 786,000 people voted, representing about 26% of registered Democrats and 21% of registered Republicans.
This year, voters who liked using a mail-in ballot and expected to get one may be disappointed. The automatic mailing of ballots to all voters was only temporary. Only some people — those who asked to receive a mail-in ballot for every election or those who requested a ballot in 2016, 2017 or 2018 and did not opt out of receiving them — are getting one automatically this year, and they should have received their ballots by now.
“Where I see confusion is we have voters who got a vote-by-mail ballot last year because Murphy had everyone get one and they didn’t get one this year,” said Hunterdon County Clerk Mary Melfi. “Then we have some who got one because they filled out an application in the past but they don’t want it and they want to go to the polls.”
People who did not get a mail-in ballot can still choose to vote by mail in the primary, but they will have to request a ballot. The deadline for doing so is June 1 if applying by mail or 3 p.m. June 7 if requesting one from county election officials in person. The website VoteByMailNJ.org has directions about how voters can find out if they’re supposed to automatically receive a mail-in ballot and how to request one.
Drop boxes open for ballots
New Jersey rolled out secure ballot drop boxes last year to enable voters to bypass the postal service, which was fraught with delivery delays. These proved very popular last year and are already in use for the primary.
“The drop boxes are already open and mail-in ballots are being picked up by board (of elections) staff,” Caterson said.
A new law gave county officials more leeway in the placement of drop boxes — at least 10 in each county — so the ones available for use in the primary may not necessarily be at the same location as they were last fall. It’s best to check county election websites to find the locations of boxes in each county. While all the locations are supposed to be available on the state Division of Elections’ website, that page states it has not been updated since last October.
As was the case last year, mail-in ballots must be postmarked by Election Day, June 8, or placed in a ballot box by 8 p.m. that day and received by county officials by June 14 in order to count. Any mailed ballot without a postmark can be counted provided election officials receive it within 48 hours of the close of polls. One change from last November, voters cannot drop off mail-in ballots at their local polling sites.
Statewide early voting is not coming to New Jersey until the fall, although many counties do allow people to vote early some nights or weekends leading up to the election using a paper ballot. County election officials’ websites will specify those times, if available. Otherwise, anyone who doesn’t use a mail-in ballot will need to vote in-person on Election Day. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
County clerks will be mailing out sample ballots, as they have in the past, which will include the polling location for each voter. Some of those may have changed, so it is best for voters to check before going out on Election Day. The state also has a polling-place locator tool.
Voting machines will return to polling locations next month, so those casting ballots should expect to see that process look very similar to pre-pandemic elections.