New mail-in ballot law could cause confusion at the polls

County workers are stuffing envelopes with mail-in ballots, and they’re stuffing a lot of envelopes. Thanks to a new state law, every voter who got a mail-in ballot in 2016 will automatically get one this year, unless they opt out in writing. So where Monmouth County expected to send out up to 20,000 mail-in ballots, it will now have to send out more than 30,000.

“That part of the law, that new change, has been difficult to implement in such a short time period because vote by mail ballots start going out Sept. 22. It’s not like we have until November to implement a law that was enacted in August. We basically had a month,” said Monmouth County Clerk Christine Giordano Hanlon.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed the law in August, arguing that expanding mail-in voting, or what used to be known as an absentee ballot, would expand voter participation.

County clerks, however, say they had just weeks to comply with the law, without additional resources to do so.

According to federal data, more than 400,000 mail-in ballots were sent to New Jersey voters for the 2016 election. The counties sent out letters to those voters telling them they had to opt out of receiving a mail-in ballot if they didn’t want one.

If they don’t and just show up on Election Day, they won’t be able to use the voting machines and instead will be given provisional ballots. And that often doesn’t go over well.

“This is something that we are concerned about. We are providing additional provisional ballots so that we have enough for those people who receive a vote by mail ballot and did not vote the vote by mail ballot,” said Giordano Hanlon.

The state also changed the application form, meaning new forms had to be printed on short notice. County clerks estimate all the changes are costing them about a million dollars.

The Governor’s Office says no one will be turned away from voting, but some lawmakers say that’s not the point.

“What business is it of government to decide when someone gets an absentee ballot or not, or vote by mail ballot? asked state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon. “They won’t be looking for it in their mail, they may miss it, and they’ll show up to the polls expecting to vote. They will be told they can’t, they’ll have to vote provisionally.”

County clerks expect the confusion will mean there will be more provisional ballots to count this year if unsuspecting voters show to the polls. So if you get a letter in the mail from the county clerk, read it.

This could have national repercussions because many of the Congressional races in New Jersey could be close. And because it takes days to count provision ballots, and there could be a lot more provisional ballots, it’s possible that we won’t know who controls Congress by the end of Election Day.