More voters turning to mail to cast ballots

June’s primary saw continued growth in voting by mail. November will offer more options
Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
File photo: Using a ballot drop box

Close to three in 10 people who voted in the June primary used mail-in ballots, the most for any nonpresidential primary in New Jersey, according to data from the state Division of Elections.

The 2020 June primary was the only election in which a greater percentage of voters — 87.5% — used paper ballots, a number driven by the pandemic. To minimize the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered county clerks to send a mail-in ballot to every active registered Democrat and Republican and urged people to use these to vote. Only a fraction of the usual number of polling locations was open for that election.

When voters automatically receive a ballot, many use them. For last November’s general election, county clerks sent ballots to more than 6 million registered voters and 93.5% either mailed them back or deposited them into one of more than 100 secure drop boxes throughout the state.

This year, the only people who received a mail-in ballot were those who asked to receive them, either for every election or specifically for the June primary. Of the 762,000 who voted in the primary, more than 218,000 used a mail-in ballot. That represents 28.6% of all those who cast ballots. In the last gubernatorial primary, in 2017, fewer than 5% of voters mailed in their ballots.

Convenience mattered. So did COVID-19

Some advocates say those numbers indicate that voters like the convenience of being able to make their choices from home in the weeks or days leading up to an election. But continuing concerns over COVID-19 could have played a role, with the state’s mask mandate just days before the election prompting some to stay away from polling locations.

Election officials are readying for this November’s election, when the governor’s race tops the ballot and all 120 seats in the Legislature are also up for election. It will be another election conducted amid the pandemic, this time as the delta variant drives up COVID-19 cases, and mask mandates and social distancing requirements loom. It will also be an election where New Jersey will mandate access to  early in-person voting for the first time.

“It’s not surprising that more people are choosing to vote by mail than prior to 2020. We are still in a pandemic and people are making decisions based on that,” said Henal Patel of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “Moreover, as more people become familiar with the process, they appreciate the convenience of it. It’s why vote-by-mail should be so easily accessible.”

Voting by mail is slightly risky for those unfamiliar with it. Not following the rules, such as using the proper color ink to mark a ballot or tearing off the certification slip attached to the envelope in which the ballot is placed, can invalidate a person’s vote. The state has a process to allow voters to fix a mistake. Still, about 3% of ballots — more than 7,200 — were rejected in the June primary.

“Yes, there needs to be improvement,” said Uyen “Winn” Khuong of the ballot rejections. Khuong is founder and executive director of Action Together New Jersey and the Vote by Mail NJ website.

The process to correct a ballot does work when people use it. An analysis provided by Khuong shows that at least 17,600 people in 17 of the 21 counties were able to fix problems and have their votes counted and fewer than 5% of those who sent back a so-called cure form — or about 307 people — still had their ballots rejected. But only about half of those who received a notice of the need to cure a ballot defect returned the form.

Seeking cure for ballot problems

Khuong said she is working with Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) on a bill (S-3891) he introduced soon after the primary to further improve that cure process.

Some people prefer to vote in person, which is why it is important that New Jersey will finally be offering early, in-person voting by machine for the first time this November, Patel continued.

“We’ve also seen across the country and in New Jersey that traditionally Black and other voters of color prefer to vote in person,” she said in an email. “We think both (in-person early voting and expanded vote-by-mail) are key to having a strong democracy. Voters deserve options.”

Counties are finalizing their purchases of the equipment needed to pull off early voting, set to begin Oct. 23, and will have the money to buy the dozens of new voting machines with a paper trail and electronic poll books to ensure the process will be secure. The counties estimate the total cost at $83 million. While Murphy signed the early-voting law in March, he had only earmarked $42 million for the cost. But last-minute language added to the budget before it was passed by the Legislature in late June requires the state to pick up the full tab.

Earlier this year, Murphy made New Jersey the 25th state to require access to early, in-person voting by machine. Currently, counties offer early voting using paper vote-by-mail ballots according to schedules they specify. Under the law, each county must  open between three and 10 polling places, depending on the number of registered voters, for machine voting for nine days before the general election, ending on the Sunday before Election Day. This year, that would be from Saturday, Oct. 23 through Sunday, Oct. 31.

Needed: new voting machines, other equipment

More than 15,000 electronic poll books are needed along with chargers, styluses and ballot printers. Also needed: more than 2,000 voting machines, each able to provide a paper trail, as state law requires all new machines to have a trail that allows for post-election audits. Because people will be coming from all over a county to vote in a few locations, ballots will need to be printed for every municipality — and in some cases voting district, in places where local council members are elected by district rather than town-wide.

Money is also needed to store the new machines; rent, clean and secure the early voting centers and connect the sites to the Statewide Voter Registration System, as well as to train and pay more than 5,000 poll workers to staff 168 early-voting centers.

Having that guarantee that the state will cover the cost of early voting is comforting, but some election officials are worried about a potential poll worker shortage to cover both the early days and Election Day.

Among its last votes, the Senate approved with no dissent a bill (S-598) which would double the amount of money poll workers make per day to $400. Those who worked on June 8 received that much after lawmakers and Murphy rushed a change in the law just days before the election authorizing the higher pay. An acute shortage of poll workers in the election could have led to the closing of some polling locations and long lines at those that were open. But that change increased the pay only for that day. Counties would continue to pay $75 of each worker’s stipend and the state would pick up the rest.

Enough poll workers?

The state last raised the stipend for poll workers two decades ago. Election officials fear that without a pay raise, there will be a shortage of workers this fall, especially since they will need to find enough people to work the polls on the nine days of early voting.

“The poll workers put in long days to make our elections function effectively so that every voter has the opportunity to participate in the democratic process,” said Sen. Joseph Cryan (D-Union), one of the sponsors of the bill. “They should be compensated fairly for their service. It is difficult to recruit citizens to become poll workers, but this pay increase will be a great incentive to encourage citizens to take a more active role in our elections.”

The Assembly, however, has not held a hearing yet and has no sessions scheduled before the election.

One other last-minute change to the state budget should also help election officials and ensure the integrity of the state’s elections. The administration asked and lawmakers agreed to add $2 million to the budget to allow the state to join the national Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). Most of the states are members of ERIC, a data-sharing organization that allows members to receive reports of voters who have moved within the state, into or out of the state, as well as deaths and duplicate registrations, which can help better manage voter rolls. Some election officials have been urging the state to join ERIC for several years; this is the first time money was allocated to do so.

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