NJ voters with disabilities can get e-mailed ballot to mail back
New Jerseyans with significant disabilities have a little-known sixth option for casting ballots in this November’s election – accessible vote-by-mail, in which they’re emailed a link to a ballot that they return through the mail.
The state and advocacy groups have been actively promoting the various paths people have to cast votes in this pandemic-disrupted election: By returning mail-in ballots via the Postal Service, in ballot drop boxes, at county boards of elections or at polling places on Election Day, or by filling out a paper provisional ballot at polling places that will be open in every municipality on Nov. 3.
To use accessible vote-by-mail, people request access to the system from their county clerk. If the request is approved, they get an email with a link to a ballot personalized with the contests and questions for where they live.
From that link, they can mark the ballot with help from any accessibility device that voter needs. When done, the voter prints it, puts it into a pre-prepared envelope and sends it back.
“The foundation basically is that every voter has the right to vote privately and independently,” said Matt Pasternack, co-founder and president of VotingWorks, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization.
At a voting precinct, such voters can use special equipment that enables them to view the ballot on a screen or hear an audio version and helps them mark a ballot, which is then printed and cast.
“During the pandemic, many voters cannot safely go to the precinct to vote, and that includes voters with accessibility needs as well as other voters. And so voters with accessibility needs still need to be able to vote privately and independently. That’s still their right. It doesn’t change in a pandemic,” Pasternack said.
For the May elections held in 32 municipalities, New Jersey contracted with Democracy Live for a system that would allow people needing assistance to vote online. Only one person used the system, which cost $89,000 and was not heavily promoted. It was not renewed for the July primary, after it was challenged by the Rutgers International Human Rights Clinic.
The VotingWorks system involves printing out the ballot and returning it by mail. It also costs the state half of what was tried for the May election.
“Incredibly important distinction, this is not online voting,” Pasternack said. “This is a way to help voters with accessibility needs mark their ballot but then still print it out and mail it in. And it’s a paper ballot, like every other ballot in the election.”
Dozens of states have accessible vote-by-mail systems. New Jersey is one of five states working with VotingWorks.
Pasternack said the biggest challenge is making people aware that accessible vote-by-mail is available.
“A lot of people today with accessibility needs who want to vote, if they don’t feel safe being in a precinct, they might think that there’s no other way for them to vote. But there is. They can vote using accessible vote by mail in New Jersey,” he said.
Pasternack said people who want to use the system shouldn’t delay. The Postal Service is urging people who plan to vote through the mail to send their ballots no later than Oct. 27, one week before the Nov. 3 election.
“Anyone with a disability that impacts their ability to vote should immediately contact their clerk’s office and request access to accessible vote by mail, because you still need to print out the ballot and mail it in, so you should not wait until the very last moment to do this,” Pasternack said. “Don’t wait until Election Day. Voters should do this as soon as they’re able to.”
Votes sent through the mail that are postmarked on or before Nov. 3 will be counted in New Jersey if they’re received by 8 p.m. on Nov. 10. However, sometimes envelopes with prepaid postage don’t get postmarked. Ballots without postmarks will be counted if they arrive by 8 p.m. on Nov. 5.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.