It is both possible and probable that there were leakages on Election Days past in “how the votes are going” for any candidate of either party in any county. It is understandable why naysayers are alarmed when an amendment was added to Bill NJ A4475 (20R), and signed into law by Governor Murphy last Friday, that allowed the county board of elections to “begin opening the inner envelopes and canvassing each mail-in ballot” beginning ten days prior to Election Day for this November Election. This is materially different than before when county boards of elections may only open the inner envelope on Election Day.
One key reason this amendment was added in was based on feedback from county election officials needing more time to handle the volume due to the anticipated high use of mail-in ballots. Pandemic times or not, allowing county election workers to begin the time-consuming canvassing process would accomplish several goals chiefly getting the election certified in time for the meeting of the Electors College on December 14. If we want to ensure election security, we need to allow for time for election officials to do their job of inspecting and processing through all the security features in a mail-in ballot. But the critical question at hand is if leakages occur during the ten days leading up to Election Day, what are the ramifications and would it be enough to sway any campaign?
Firstly, there is a big disincentive to do this illegal act: it is a crime of the third degree to do so which could result in up to five years imprisonment. This is in alignment with laws in other primarily Vote By Mail states such as Washington and Colorado whereby both have laws of crimes of the third degree for these illegal acts. Nonetheless, we need to train our election workers and make them aware of the severe penalty and moreover, whomever shall hear of leakage should do their patriotic duty to protect our democracy and report the violation to be investigated timely. We need to stop the hearsay and to root out those who commit these violations.
Secondly, allowing the county election officials to start this labor- and time-intensive process beginning ten days prior to Election Day is a compromise and is on the lower end of what is allowed in other primarily Vote By Mail states. For example, California commences the mailing, processing, and counting of mail-in ballots 29 days prior to Election Day. Colorado begins 15 days before. Even ten days helps us in New Jersey to get our election certified in time. We cannot decry that our ballots are rejected at too high a rate disenfranchising our voters and demand that our elections are called by Election Night yet not give those tasked with processing these ballots correctly enough time to do their job.
Lastly and importantly, when looking at the impact of these leakages changing the course of action for any campaign at any level of the ballot, there is negligible impact if any at all. Everyone who has ever been elected or has ever run for elected office knows the science and practice of “GOTV”, the critical get out the vote efforts in the two weeks, and weekend, leading up to Election Day. The significant effort, campaign funds, and ground game are planned and executed in getting their voters to come out and vote for them during this time. No leaks about how a race is going – positive or negative – can sway any campaign to do more in their effort to call or text potential voters or door-knock (pre-pandemic?) on their supporters’ doors. This effort is already planned, budgeted for, and undertaken. Whether their opponent is allegedly 100 votes in the lead or 200 votes behind, every candidate is maximizing all their efforts in the waning days leading up to Election Day – and even on Election Day – to get out the vote. Leakages do not change this.
With the exponential increase in Vote By Mail, the amendment in this new law gives our county election officials the ability to do their job timely and not at the expense of rushing through the processing of the security features of the mail-in ballot. Leakages would cost not only their jobs but up to five years imprisonment and would act as a deterrent and have negligible practical impact on any campaign to find even more voters to vote for them as that work is already undertaken.
Khuong is the executive director of Action Together New Jersey.