Election officials warn of confusion, big glitches ahead of July primary
County election officials tell lawmakers that glitches in the new statewide voter registration system remain a major obstacle to conducting a mainly vote-by-mail election, as is being done in July due to the coronavirus and could be done again in November.
Hunterdon County Clerk Mary Melfi said the system is very secure but that as it has been used to create and mail ballots, it has run into a multitude of problems, such as missed deadlines for overseas ballots and trays of returned ballots sent to voters who moved or died.
She said the system isn’t allowing for primary ballots to be sent to unaffiliated voters who request them, and that ballots for 17-year-olds who are newly eligible to vote in the July 7 primary, if they are due to turn 18 before the November election, weren’t printed and sent by mail.
“The bottom line is this system is not ready for a statewide, automatic vote-by-mail system. It could handle the voter-request ballot, but it couldn’t handle the automatic-generated,” Melfi said. “And I don’t think it’s ready to do a statewide-generated general ballot.”
“As we sit here today, I can’t say that the clerks have 100% confidence that everybody that wants a ballot is getting a ballot,” she said. “… What concerns us is how is this going to play into the integrity of the whole election? How are the voters going to trust us?”
The functionality of the voter registration database was just one issue raised in nearly 90 minutes of testimony.
Monmouth University political scientist Patrick Murray said it’s a misnomer to say other states conduct “vote-by-mail” elections because three-fourths of those votes are cast at drop boxes, not the mail. He said they have significant numbers of drop boxes, not the five per county being required in New Jersey.
“If you’re going to do mainly vote-by-mail elections, you have to have multiple drop box locations so that voters can easily access those locations and not rely on the U.S. Postal Service to return their ballot,” Murray said.
Henal Patel, director of New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s democracy and justice program, said multiple counties have chosen police stations as drop box locations, which she called “unacceptable.” She said courts have noted some minority voters are suspicious of police and that they may choose to refrain from voting.
“That’s just a reality we live in,” Patel said. “Especially right now given the current climate and the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests against use of police force, no county should have vote-by-mail drop box locations at police stations.”
The Division of Elections has sent a notice to county election boards asking them not to put ballot drop boxes in front of police stations if other locations exist that meet the state’s guidance on availability and surveillance.
People who want to vote but not by mail or drop box will be able to do so at polling places. But as many as half the regular polling places will be closed, meaning some voters will be shifted to new locations. Those who vote in person will do so on provisional paper ballots, so election officials can ensure a person doesn’t vote by mail and in person and get double-counted.
“Voters, they don’t understand what a provisional ballot is, and they are unclear that they’re going to be voting by provisional ballot at in-person voting locations,” said Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “So there could be some confusion about voters expecting to vote on machines on election day.”
Theresa O’Connor, deputy superintendent of elections in Bergen County, said counties are having a difficult time staffing the polling places, as poll workers are reluctant to work amid the COVID-19 threat. And she said the provisional ballot workload and vote-by-mail shift will create a vote-counting challenge.
“This year, in turn, we ask your patience as these results will not likely be known up until several weeks beyond election day,” O’Connor said.
Somerset County Clerk Steve Peter said county clerks are taping informational videos telling voters how vote-by-mail should work but that the state hasn’t yet done its public service announcement campaign mandated by Gov. Phil Murphy’s May 15 executive order changing how the primary is to be conducted.
“Voters remain confused about the election that is now three weeks away – less than three weeks away,” Peter said.
Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin said there is no reason the timing and truncated schedule that has complicated the May elections and July primary to continue through November. He said the state should know and communicate by early August how the general election will be conducted.
“If we are to uphold our nation’s highest ideals as a representative democracy, then these elections have to work,” Dworkin said.
“To be clear,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, “advancements can be made on these issues for the July primary, but we really have to get this right by November.”
Bergen County superintendent of elections Patricia DiCostanzo said legislators need to “step back a little bit with all this legislation” until after the primary.
“We should crawl before we walk,” DiCostanzo said. “New Jersey has given all the voters, it may not be perfect, but we’ve always given fair elections. And when we can’t put our heads down on a pillow at night and say, ‘I think it’s going to be great tomorrow,’ that bothers me because it’s about the process.”
The Assembly State and Local Government Committee delayed action on legislation that would have modified and established various voting procedures, such as ‘curing’ mail-in ballots being rejected for signature mismatches.
The state Tuesday settled a lawsuit connected to that topic to allow for some ballots to be cured in the July primary.
Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, said for now the focus is “education, education, education to the voters.”
“Once we get I guess through the primary July 7, perhaps we can look at things and see what worked and what didn’t work and maybe do things in a more problem-solving way in terms of not putting laws out there, as was said that we just keep putting laws and hopefully this works or that,” Mazzeo said.
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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.