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Counting all-VBM election votes has challenges, state attorney general says

Almost 730,000 voters will be mailed ballots of May 12 elections in 31 N.J. municipalities

By David Wildstein, March 26 2020 11:53 am

The state attorney general is recommending that county election boards maintain video and audio recordings when they count vote-by-mail ballots for the May 12 elections, according to a memo obtained by the New Jersey Globe that responded to a series of questions from election officials.

Nearly 730,000 New Jersey voters in 31 municipalities will receive mail-in ballots for local elections in the state’s first all-VBM elections ordered by Gov. Phil Murphy in response to curbing the spread of the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

Election officials will practice social distancing to count ballots “to the extent followed,” according to deputy attorneys general Susan Scott and George Cohen.

“Consideration should be given to an electronic means of video/audio viewing of the counting. This should be determined in consultation with the Department of Health and in keeping with the recommendations for social distancing,” they said.

Counties will not be permitted to begin counting mail-in ballots before May 12.

In some places, like Essex County, where Newark and five other municipalities are holding elections, it could be days before the results are known.

If it takes longer, the plan is to punt the decision to the courts.

“(If) a Board needs additional time to complete counting the ballots due to the volume of vote-by-mail ballots returned, we can seek court relief on a case-by-case basis in those counties that need it,” wrote Scott and Cohen wrote to election officials.

Health concerns in vote count cited

Scott and Cohen said that standards set by the Secretary of State and the Department of Health will supersede statutory deadlines under the current state of emergency.

“Assuming such a practice of in-person meetings would be advisable by the Department of Health, this procedure could be used for challenges to vote-by-ballots regardless of when the counting occurs,” they said.  “If such a practice is inadvisable, or would violate current restrictions on gatherings, the Board should consult with the Department of Health, the Division of Elections and the Attorney General’s Office to discuss alternatives.”

Election officials have advised the state that they have not been able to find protective gloves, masks and hand sanitizer for use while processing VBM ballots

It’s not clear how Murphy’s decision to impose curfews will affect the counting of ballots.

“Curfews should be honored while they exist. It is unknown how long curfews will remain,” the attorney general’s memo stated.  “Should the local curfews remain and it is necessary for election offices to exceed the local curfew, we will need to determine what, if any, steps can be taken to have the curfews lifted solely for the election offices.”

Murphy’s executive order suspended the 45-day mailing deadline for VBM ballots, and election officials are planning to mail ballots around April 19, the Globe has learned.

Robert Giles, the director of the state Division of Elections, has been in contact with the U.S. Postal Service to discuss an anticipated increase in the normal volume of mail being sent and returned by county election officials.

Giles has still not determined how visually impaired voters will cast their ballots in the all-VBM elections, according to the attorney general’s office.

“The Division of Elections is consulting with States that have all elections solely by mail and meeting with advocacy groups in this regard,” Scott and Cohen said.

Some voters who might normally be required to show identification before voting will be asked to include a copy of their ID with their completed VBM ballots.

“Those voters needing identification will receive a notice, just as they have in the past, that notifies them that they need to provide identification and advises them that they can provide a copy of their identification with their voted ballot or provide it to the Board up to 48-hours from the date of the election,” the attorney general’s office noted.

According to Scott and Cohen, sample ballots will not be mailed for the May 12 elections, and no provisional ballots need to be printed for an election that has no in-person polling place voting.

Murphy’s executive order “does not suspend or modify any statutory notice/advertisement requirements,” the deputy attorneys general said.

The executive order also does not impact limitations on bearer ballots.

“Government offices need to develop a system to accept ballots brought in by bearers,” the memo from Scott and Cohen said.  “As an example, in Atlantic, if a bearer comes in with ballots, the bearer calls the office and a staff member comes to collect the ballots and have the bearer provide the required information/document and signature. The county offices would consult with their attorneys and health departments to determine the safest manner to accept bearer ballots.”

In Irvington and Ridgewood, the only municipalities that will now hold simultaneous elections for non-partisan municipal office and school board, the attorney general is instructing county clerks to separate the two offices on the ballot “the same ballot just as is done in November elections.”

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