New Jersey’s vote-by-mail election wasn’t a disaster. Top officials now looking at early voting.



A man walks past a vote-by-mail drop box for the New Jersey primary election outside the Camden, N.J., Administration Building, Wednesday, July 1, 2020.


New Jersey’s first ever mostly vote-by-mail general election didn’t turn out to be the disaster some had feared. There were few reported problems at the polls, most lines weren’t long and more people voted this year than in 2016.

“It actually wasn’t as bad as I anticipated it to be,” Hunterdon County Clerk Mary Melfi said.

But vote counting has been slow in some counties. Several elections officials told POLITICO they still don’t have a grasp of how many provisional ballots filled out by voters at polling places on Election Day were turned in. Those ballots won’t be counted until next week at the earliest.

Elections officials from both major parties are now looking at what went right, what went wrong and what future elections in New Jersey should look like after the pandemic led Gov. Phil Murphy and the Democrat-led Legislature to change the process.

The state's two most powerful elected officials are calling for an expansion of early voting.

Murphy on Thursday said he wants to make in-person early voting available on machines.

“The one thing that I want that would address a lot of this and would require some amount of investment is early in-person voting," Murphy said at a press conference in Trenton.

Murphy and other officials have said that to make in-person early voting on machines practical, the state would have to purchase electronic poll books, which previous legislation pegged at around $25 million. Electronic polling books help ensure people can’t vote twice, by mail-in ballot and at the machine, by providing poll workers with real-time data.

Senate President Steve Sweeney said he disagreed with Murphy's initial executive order to send all registered voters mail-in ballots, but passed legislation approving it because he didn't want a lawsuit by President Donald Trump’s campaign challenging the system to cause chaos in New Jersey.

While Sweeney said he doesn't want future elections to be conducted by mail-in ballot, he does want to expand early voting. He said he's drafting legislation to make Election Day a more expansive holiday in New Jersey to give more people the day off.

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) also said he has also come around to supporting early voting on machines, with or without electronic poll books. But, he said, he doesn’t believe residents should receive a mail-in ballot unless they ask for one.

Melfi, a Republican, had originally expressed concerns about households that received mail-in ballots for people who hadn’t lived at the address in years. In October, other election officials related reports of ballots addressed to people who had died. And Republicans in general decried the fact that most residents would not be allowed to cast their votes on machines.

Melfi said the process of mailing ballots to all registered voters in Hunterdon County was “very labor intensive” but that more than 80,000 of the roughly 98,500 ballots sent were returned.

“We prepared very, very early,” she said. “I think that’s a key to our success. I had all the ballots out by September 21.”

The problems officials cited were mainly about slow counting.

In Morris County, an election official who spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about the process cited problems with bar codes on some mail-in ballot envelopes. The historically-Republican county still has a special election for a state Senate and Assembly seat and a freeholder race that remain too close to call.

There were enough ballots returned in two of New Jersey’s three most competitive congressional races — the 3rd District in South Jersey and the 7th District in Central Jersey — for the Associated Press to declare winners. But the single most closely watched race in the state, in the 2nd District where Republican U.S. Jeff Van Drew faced off against Democrat Amy Kennedy, remains too close to call. Van Drew holds about a 3.5 percentage point lead with 75 percent of the votes counted.

“I think it was a phenomenal success. The first principle when the governor announced this hybrid approach with everybody receiving a ballot and paper ballots at the polls, the goal was to keep people safe,” said Matt Platkin, Murphy’s former chief counsel who helped craft the executive order to conduct the election primarily by mail-in ballot.

The state has counted a more than 4 million mail-in ballots — with an untold number still to be counted if they were postmarked by Nov. 3 and received by Nov. 10 — and provisional ballots. Turnout, based on the number of ballots counted so far, stands at 67 percent and will likely increase. Total turnout in 2016 was 68 percent.

There were also demographic differences in how people voted.

Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin, a Democrat, said many voters in cities like Newark, Irvington, East Orange and Orange chose to vote in-person, either provisionally or by dropping off their ballots at polling places.

Durkin and Melfi both said that if the state wants to continue conducting elections by mail-in ballot, it needs to fix the Statewide Voter Registration System, which officials have said is riddled with errors and outdated voter information. It’s the reason ballots sometimes went to places where voters hadn’t lived in years, they said.

Melfi said the state’s website that told voters the status of their submitted mail-in ballot led to a lot of confusion because it told voters their ballot had been “received” but won’t say if it was “accepted” until the election is certified.

“The state caused us so much trouble with that track-your-ballot website,” she said. “I could have saved hours and hours of labor if I didn’t have to answer all those track your ballot questions.”

Al Barlas, a member of the Essex County Board of Elections and the county’s GOP chair, said that if the state wants to conduct future elections similar to 2020, all 21 counties should have a standardized approach.

“A practical issue with this election is every county is doing its own thing,” Barlas said. “In Essex, we had 270,000 or 280,000 votes counted by 8 o’clock on election night. Morris, from what I’ve read, didn’t even have half of that counted. To me, that’s not fair to the candidates.”

Assembly member Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex), a prime sponsor of the law that established this year’s voting procedures, said “everyone I’ve talked to said that things have gone very smoothly.”

“My conclusion is that, without a doubt, we need to look at how you’re going to do something besides everyone only votes on the first Tuesday in November,” Zwicker said.

Zwicker said he isn’t sure whether that means more mostly vote-by-mail elections or allowing voters to cast ballots on machines beginning two weeks before Election Day.

“I think it’s too soon to say which of those is the right way to go,” Zwicker said.

Ultimately, it will be up to Murphy and the Democratic legislative leadership to decide whether New Jersey permanently alters the way it runs its elections.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin wouldn’t indicate whether he favors a permanent change, but said in a statement that “by all accounts, the election went smoothly in New Jersey despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

“There will be ample time for the administration, Legislature and elections officials to conduct a proper post mortem and better determine what went right and what went wrong,” he said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2020-11-06 03:18:35 -0800