Murphy-backed law encouraging you to vote by mail was just killed by powerful N.J. board

Updated Nov 15, 2019

A controversial state law Gov. Phil Murphy signed last year encouraging more New Jerseyans to vote by mail was just thrown out by a little-known but powerful state board.

Under the law, Garden State residents who voted by mail in 2016 or later automatically receive mail-in ballots from their county clerk for every subsequent election, unless they request to opt out.

But the New Jersey Council on Local Mandates invalidated the law Friday, ruling that it amounted to an unfunded mandate on the state’s 21 counties.

That means the council ruled the state is forcing the counties to enforce the law without giving them proper funding to cover the cost of sending out an influx of ballots.

The council sided with the New Jersey Association of Counties, which had argued the state was violating the state constitution by imposing an unfunded mandate.

Thus, the state Legislature must pass a new bill with adequate funding and Murphy must sign it for the law to be resurrected.

Murphy’s office did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

The Council on Local Mandates reviews laws in New Jersey to makes sure they’re in line with the state constitution’s “state mandate, state pay” amendment. In other words, it makes sure the state can’t mandate local governments fall in line with a new law if it did not provide them enough funding.

In the past, New Jersey voters had the option of voting by mail in any election if they applied for a ballot by the deadline.

The law Murphy signed August 2018 said anyone who voted by mail in the 2016 election would automatically receive mail-in from now on.

Murphy, a progressive Democrat, said the goal was to make it easier for more people to vote.

The law helped lead to more than 240,000 people voting by mail in New Jersey’s elections earlier this month — a significant uptick from years past.

But the Association of Counties argued the law did not include funding from the state to help counties pay for the millions in taxpayer money it costs to implement the law..

The Murphy administration argued to the council that the law could actually save counties time and money because they wouldn’t have to process as many applications.

The administration also argued the law fell into the exceptions written into the “state mandate, state pay" rule because it “implements a provision of the New Jersey Constitution by enforcing and promoting the right to vote” and “eases an existing requirement or mandate in providing voters with mail-in ballots.”

Critics also said the law was confusing. Lawmakers in August rushed to pass an emergency fix to make sure that tens of thousands of people who voted by mail in 2017 and 2018 would also automatically receive mail-in ballots and not have to visit their clerks in person.

Lawmakers allocated $2 million this time to help counties, which the council said “constitutes a clear and unequivocal recognition by the Legislature that the mandate created by the amendments to the ‘vote by mail’ law required some degree of funding in order to be valid.”

But while Murphy quickly signed the fix into law in August, he froze the money authorized by the Legislature, “thereby rendering the funds unavailable for the stated purpose," the council said.

“In the absence of any funding of the mandate, we find and determine that the challenged laws constitute unfunded mandates,” the council added.

The ruling concludes that "the challenged provisions of the law shall cease to be mandatory in their effect and shall forthwith expire.”

John Donnadio, executive director of the Association of Counties, said he and his group are pleased with the decision.

“We never questioned the policy of voting by mail," Donnadio told NJ Advance Media. "We just opposed that this imposed an unfunded mandate on our county clerks.”

Friday’s ruling does not affect the elections held last week. Nor does the ruling force the state to repay the counties, Donnadio said.

But the state would either have to let the ruling stand or pass a new law to move forward for next year’s elections, he said.

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