“Our votes were not counted. My vote, my wife and our two sons.” Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly lives in Paterson where the May 12 VBM, or vote-by-mail, election is now under investigation by state and federal authorities. He says, 3,200 votes, including his, got rejected by the Board of Elections. “I was furious. One was, I had concerns about the VBM process due to COVID-19. The postal system really wasn’t working due to the shortage of workers.”
One losing candidate recently filed a lawsuit alleging fraud, but as most of New Jersey’s 6.1 million residents prepare to cast vote-by-mail ballots in the July 7 primary Wimberly pointed out vote-by-mail challenges can arise in densely-populated cities with mail carriers overwhelmed by thousands of ballots. “Under one case, they went to a development and dropped all of the VBMs by the mailbox — so basically they had to sort them out and get them to people,” said Wimberly (D-Passaic).
An NJ Spotlight analysis found one in ten ballots got rejected during last month’s special elections. Often it’s for simple issues like a mismatched signature and voters don’t find out about it until after the election has been decided. New Jersey’s Institute for Social Justice wants to change that so voters can tell officials, “That is definitely my ballot! Count it! Don’t just reject it!… So that it would count for that election, so your ballot’s not just rejected. A signature match is interesting because people’s signatures change all the time,” said Henal Patel, director of the Democracy and Justice Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
The institute sued New Jersey’s Secretary of State demanding a workable remedy before the primary. While voting by mail is not new in New Jersey, the July 7 primary will mark a first experience for most voters and one legal expert expects problems because the rules are unfamiliar. Ronald Chen, a professor at Rutgers Law School remarked, “I think it’s probably good that we’re giving vote-by-mail a full vetting, especially because, depending on what conditions we’re operating under in November, it’s probably good that the voters get used to this system. Whenever you change a voting system, the main thing to overcome is making sure the voters understand what they’re doing.”
For example, Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi says, machines will be reserved for disabled folks. “That’s a big issue. I expected more education from the state to be forthcoming on this … The Boards of Election in the state are going to have some issues on Election Day. There are many voters that don’t understand why they can’t vote on the machines.” She has already seen mismatched labels and wrongly-delivered ballots, both problems already fixed, and she says voters need to follow the directions precisely. Properly fill out the ballot and put it inside the special, red-printed certificate envelope. Here’s where voters mess up, she says. Do not detach the flap! “The state does that flap to validate that that is the voter that voted the ballot. People make a mistake and I send them a new envelope.”