Election officials worry about New Jersey’s vote-by-mail primary

“Our votes were not counted. My vote, my wife and our two sons.” Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly lives in Paterson where the May 12th 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 system really wasn’t working due to the shortage of workers.”

One losing candidate recently filed a lawsuit alleging fraud but as 6.1 million New Jersey residents prepare to cast vote-by-mail ballots in the July 7th 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 the VBMs by the mailbox – so basically they had to sort them out and get them to people.”

A NJ Spotlight survey found one in ten ballots got rejected during last month’s special elections. Often it’s for simple issues like a mismatched signature but you won’t find out about it until after the election’s 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 could count for that election. 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 Democracy & Justice Program for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

The Institute sued New Jersey’s Secretary of State demanding a workable remedy before the primary. While VBM is not new in New Jersey this primary will mark a first experience for most voters and one legal expert expects problems because the rules are unfamiliar. Ronald Chen, Professor at Rutgers Law School remarked “I think it’s probably good that we’re giving vote-by-mail a full vetting, especially because, given what conditions we’re operating under in November, it’s probably good the voters get used to this system.”

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. I think the Boards of Election in the state are going to have some issues on Election Day. There are many voters who don’t understand why they can’t vote on the machines.” She’s 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, 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 is the voter, that voted the ballot. People make a mistake and I send them a new envelope.”

Meanwhile without the ability to launch door-to-door drives New Jersey voter registration’s down significantly during the COVID lockdown. Which party does that benefit? “What is likely to happen in this unique environment? I think it’s really hard to wager an answer because we are just in such uncharted territory,” said Krista Jenkins, Executive Director, FDU PublicMind Poll.

If you haven’t registered county election offices have late hours this evening.

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