Home>Articles>Opinion: Will an All Vote-by-Mail Election Unfairly Favor Incumbents?

Belleville Mayor Michael Melham

Opinion: Will an All Vote-by-Mail Election Unfairly Favor Incumbents?

By Michael Melham, April 06 2020 3:08 pm


Most are unaware that May 5 is the deadline to vote by mail for the municipal non-partisan elections in New Jersey, set for May 12.

With New Jersey under a virtual lockdown, with us all rightfully worried more about the health of our loved ones than who is going to serve on the town council next year, it is clear that Vote By Mail is not exactly a burning issue.

That said, two things remain certain at the moment: New Jersey will recover from the coronavirus and our May elections will happen only by Vote-by-Mail.

So, how do we prepare? Candidates must campaign for support, urging people to return the ballots they currently have no idea they will be receiving.

There will be a tremendous advantage for incumbents. They understand how the electoral system works and have developed an infrastructure at some level to get out the vote.

Meanwhile, challengers will struggle for name recognition. Door-to-door campaigning will be heavily curtailed, while it will be impossible to host in-person fundraisers. Moreover, every single voter will receive a ballot in the mail, which includes the names of incumbents who voters will likely have familiarity with.

How can we realistically expect challengers to complete when they struggle to get their name and platform in front of voters? There will be no rallies, no debates and no real way to get voters engaged beyond social media.

Because the average voter likely has no idea about the upcoming election, he or she would likely throw away the ballot when it suddenly appears this month.  After all, they did not request it, therefore, aren’t expecting it.  Or, they may likely believe it’s the ‘sample ballot,’ and again, discard it.

This election season, when Vote-by-Mail will be the only way to cast a ballot in the May election, imagine the chaos.

Let me use Belleville for example. There are about 20,000 registered voters, of which about 1,400 people – about 7% of the electorate – have traditionally voted by mail.  There is a 30% return rate on them. So, figure in Belleville there are about 420 votes generated by mail.

For the May election, every voter in Belleville is getting a ballot. That means Essex County will need to print and mail 93% more ballots, which the U.S. Postal Service must deliver. It will be overwhelming.

The Postal Service will be relied upon twice. Once to mail the ballot to the voter and then to deliver that ballot to the county. I have seen the Postal Service struggle to complete this basic task for only 7% of the electorate.

Imagine what will happen when there is this 100% need?

Under the law, Vote-by-Mail ballots can only be hand delivered to the County in batches of three.  The previous amount allowed was ten.   However, if the number was increased, at least in this instance, whereby 100% of the electorate is receiving a ballot, it could increase voter participation. Individuals and campaigns could assist by bearing ballots, if only the limit of three was increased.

Why are we mailing 93% more ballots, and NOT increasing the number of ballots allowed by bearers?  Keep in mind, Vote by Mail was created to increase voter participation, not suppress it.

County clerks must mail ballots to even ‘inactive’ voters, which are those voters who have had their sample ballots returned to each county several times during Federal elections. Yet, the governor’s executive order requires County Clerks NOT to mail a sample ballot for this upcoming election.

This is all prompting many questions:

  • Will ALL voters now be automatically opted in for future Vote-by-Mail ballots because they voted by mail in this election?
  • How will voters receive a replacement ballot if they don’t receive their original, or it’s lost, or mistakenly discarded?
  • How will voters be able to vote provisionally on Election Day?

I’m a mayor who never received a ballot last year.  The polling location is always a plan B if you don’t get a ballot.  How do they expect people who don’t receive a ballot to vote?

Here are suggestions on how we should move forward with this election:

  • Mail a sample ballot, or at a minimum, a letter explaining there will be no sample ballot and ALL voters will automatically receive a vote by mail ballot.
  • Allow the municipal clerks offices’ to accept ballots, instead of mailing the completed ballot to the county via postal service.
  • Allow the municipal clerks offices’ to accept bearer ballot drop off ballots, with no limit.
  • Allow early voting through Vote-by-Mail at the municipal clerk’s offices. after all, they are saving a lot of money by not hosting a physical election.

This is the only way to help ensure a successful election just one month away.

Michael Melham is the mayor of Belleville and an expert on vote-by-mail balloting. 

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