Will NJ Primary be Vote-by-Mail? After Tuesday it's in Limbo

Trenton Bureau's Stacey Barchenger, Katie Sobko and Richard Cowen report

The official results from dozens of local elections held by mail on Tuesday are still being tallied, leaving many races too close to call and the fate of the upcoming primary itself in question.

Because traditional in-person voting risked spreading the coronavirus, voters instead mailed in their ballots for Tuesday's more than 30 municipal, school board and special elections across the state. The election was seen as a bellwether for how voters will cast ballots in the primary, which has been delayed from June to July because of the novel coronavirus crisis.

Gov. Phil Murphy has said he wants to hold the primary in person, if possible. But the question is: Did Tuesday go smoothly enough that relying on mail-in ballots is feasible in a higher-turnout election?

Murphy said he was still deciding.

“It’s largely too early to give you a full answer, but we need to make a decision on the July 7 election," he said during a daily briefing on Wednesday. "You can imagine we’re digesting yesterday pretty aggressively.”

Mailing out ballots and tallying the vote is a job that falls to counties. While some reported few problems, others grappled with missing ballots and suspicious bulk returns. Judges in Atlantic and Passaic counties ordered replacement ballots be given to a total of three residents who said they didn't receive theirs, and in Bergen County a judge turned away a resident who didn't register in time, according to a state courts spokesman.

Some counties, like Bergen and Monmouth, released initial results late Tuesday. Passaic County didn't release preliminary results until Wednesday.  Most counties will continue counting ballots later this week because mail-in ballots postmarked on Tuesday are counted as long as they are received Thursday.

About 800 votes in Paterson, where voters picked candidates in city council races in all six wards, were disqualified. The ballots were mailed in three bundles — one batch of about 360 ballots from a mailbox in Haledon, about 400 ballots were sent from South Paterson and the third smaller bundle, containing about 50 votes, arrived from the city's 3rd Ward. Bulk collecting of more than three ballots is prohibited by state law

Passaic County Clerk Danielle Ireland-Imhof said Tuesday's election presented "unprecedented challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic." Her office mailed 122,000 ballots prior to the election. Switching the July primary to all vote-by-mail would require her to send out closer to 190,000. 

Bergen County election officials reported few problems counting about 23,000 ballots on Tuesday.

"We had tried to hope for the best but prepare for the worst so we covered most of our bases and it went fairly smoothly here. Knock on wood," said Jamie H. Sheehan-Willis, chairwoman of the Bergen County Board of Elections. "We still have more to count today and tomorrow.”

Sheehan-Willis said the county would be able to do a vote-by-mail primary if that's what the state decides.

LeRoy Jones, chairman of the Essex County Democratic Committee, said he hoped the state would allow in-person voting — with protections like social distancing and requiring protective gear to keep poll workers and voters safe. He cited the cost to counties of mailing out ballots as well as problems that arose Tuesday, including in Irvington where he said officials were investigating ballots that appeared to have matching handwriting.

"The data seems to suggest that we’re moving in the right direction with respect to flattening the curve," he said, referencing the state's battle against coronavirus. "Nobody wants to put anybody in harm's way. Certainly the public health is tantamount importance.”

Many party leaders and scholars were watching how vote-by-mail would impact voter turnout in a typically low-profile election. It was sort of a mixed bag: in suburban Montclair turnout appeared to be up. In urban areas, like Newark's school board races, and Irvington, turnout seemed to be lower.

Many things can affect turnout, including whether a race is contested, and how much money and attention it draws. And Tuesday's results aren't yet final, meaning turnout figures can still change. But the early results had some voting rights advocates concerned that urban and minority communities across the state would not participate in vote-by-mail elections.

“That’s kind of the story here, extending vote by mail is something that works in suburbs and will have a higher turnout, but we have concerns about that in urban areas among communities of color," said Henal Patel, who leads voting rights efforts for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

The institute, League of Women Voters and more than 30 other nonprofits, policy groups and social justice organizations have urged the state to switch the upcoming elections to vote-by-mail, but with an option of in-person voting. In-person voting is necessary to reach voters with certain disabilities, who need language assistance or those who are homeless and without a mailing address, Patel said.

Conducting the state's first primary election relying on mail-in ballots would create a burden on officials to educate the public about how to make sure their ballot is filled out and is counted, she said.

“We do hope that yesterday's election, that the state actually takes this as a guide and learning lesson for what to do for July to encourage vote-by-mail," Patel said.

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