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Gov. Phil Murphy. Photo by Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe.

Murphy considering plans for hybrid July primary

State mulling middle ground to shrink in-person voting

By David Wildstein, April 30 2020 8:57 am

A plan for a sort of hybrid July 7 primary election where all Democrats and Republicans would automatically receive vote-by-mail ballots with a reduced number of polling locations available for each municipality for unaffiliated voters is among those being contemplated by Gov. Phil Murphy, the New Jersey Globe has learned.

Murphy is looking for a middle ground that would substantially shrink the number of people voting in person without forcing an all-VBM election, several sources have said.

At this point, all scenarios are on the table as the governor looks to balance health issues related to the coronavirus pandemic with a desire to respect the electoral process.

Part of the possible amalgam under consideration  is one to proactively mail VBM applications to 2.4 million unaffiliated voters — sometimes referred to as independents – in an effort to reduce in-person voting even more.

Voters registered as Democrats or Republicans would have a place to vote in-person, albeit by provisional (paper) ballot, if they don’t return their vote-by-mail ballot.

Robert Giles, the director of the state Division of Elections, has quietly touted a plan for consolidating the number of polling places across the state, several sources told the New Jersey Globe. Giles appears to prefer schools, which will be closed in July, as polling places.

Some election officials have voiced concerns that non-public voting locations, like houses of worship or apartment buildings, might be reluctant to allow their facilities to be used in July, even if the worst of the coronavirus pandemic has passed.

For safety reasons, New Jersey has tried to move away from using schools as polling places over the last few years.  Many schools are not air-conditioned, making them impracticable choices for a July election for elderly poll workers who are being asked to work a 14-hour day.

More than a dozen election officials contacted by the Globe anticipate poll worker recruitment challenges for the July primary.

If unaffiliated voters are included in an-VBM election, all 2.4 million New Jersey voters without a declared party preference would need to receive both Democratic and Republican ballots.  They would need to understand the two choices: return one ballot or the other – not both; or not vote at all.

Murphy is facing some pressure from African American leaders concerned that a consolidation of locations from their current walkable, neighborhood polling places could inadvertently suppress voter participation of low-income voters.

It could also disproportionately affect voters without cars, or in rural municipalities that are small in population and large in land mass.

Election officials are also working on securing personal protection equipment for election day workers and even for some voters, if they are still necessary on July 7.

Through and executive order, Murphy had previously consolidated March special elections and referendums, April school board elections and May municipal non-partisan elections into a single, all-VBM election on May 12.

It’s not immediately clear if Murphy will be able to wait two weeks to see the effects of New Jersey’s first election held entirely by mail-in ballots until he has to make a decision about the July 7 primary.

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