Thousands of New Jerseyans might not receive their ballots until after the July 7 primary election, the result of massive computer issues and U.S. Postal Service delays.
The Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS) has been crashing several times a day for the last few days, leaving local election officials without the ability to process thousands of vote-by-mail ballots just eleven days before the New Jersey primary election.
Computer malfunctions have become so dire that state Division of Elections director Bob Giles has told election officials to stop processing ballot requests because of network overloads, the New Jersey Globe has learned.
That has left counties without the ability to quickly turn around ballots at the time the number of requests seem to be expanding exponentially.
Now multiple county election officials are saying they are unlikely to process many requests for VBM ballots before the point where expecting the post office to deliver them before the primary would be reasonable.
“We are not capable of running this election in the time allotted,” one county election official said.
There have been reports of almost daily computer crashes for the last two weeks, but the number of records being processed every day appear to have made issues worse.
“It’s slow even when it’s working,” another official told the Globe.
To slow the spread of COVID-19, New Jersey moved the June 2 primary election to July 7 and then decided to hold run the election almost entirely through vote-by-mail ballots with limited in-person voting.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s ordered county election officials to automatically mail more than 3.7 million ballots to registered Democrats and Republicans, but just a letter to 2.4 million unaffiliated voters asking if they want to opt-in and receive a primary election ballot.
That has become one of the pressure points for county clerks, who are suddenly experiencing a surge in requests for ballots by from unaffiliateds – commonly referred to as independents – who want to vote in one of the major party primaries.
“It’s insane how many there are,” a third official said. “This is a whole new experience.”
One of the frustrations, several officials said, is that the Division of Elections was late sending them guidelines on the letter to unaffiliated voters. That caused a significant delay in beginning the process.
In addition to unaffiliated voters, several officials report an significant uptick in requests for replacement ballots from Democrats and Republicans who say the post office never delivered the first ballot that was mailed.
To process all of these requests, an election employee needs to access the SVRS. That’s the only way a ballot can be generated, and recent crashes and slowdowns have caused a serious backlog of ballots that are able to go out each day.
Another concern is that the upcoming July 4 federal holiday takes one day of mail delivery and pickup out of the election calendar.
Board of Elections offices in each county will count ballots received by the close of business on July 14, but they must carry be postmarked no later than 8 PM on July 7 to be counted.
Since the May 12 municipal election, the Globe has reported several instances where ballots postmarked on time were never counted because the post office took weeks to deliver them just a short distance.
Additional glitches with the SVRS software were also identified this week.
Officials discovered that the audit trail in the system is not accurate, which makes it impossible to track exactly who had access to a voter record and what actions were taken.
That could compromise the viability of an audit proposed by State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair) this week.
Also on the radar of county officials is the detection of another deficiency: different users with the same permissions sometimes see different screens of the same voter.
An official said that Giles’ frustration level with his own software is high. The state switched over to a new system that year, and the vendor who manages it, KnowInk, has been unsuccessful in solving a growing list of problems
In one terse exchange, the Globe was told, Giles snapped at a complaint that a problem was not fixed. He chastised a county election official for not officially submitting a ticket on the glitch but instead mentioning it on a conference call.
Several campaigns from both parties competing in the July 7 primary complained that they depend on the accuracy of the SVRS system to track who has already voted, arguing that losing access to vital data right before an election makes it difficult to implement their turnout operation.
In an email on Friday evening Democratic State Chairman John Currie said that the state party “is working closely with county and local Democratic organizations to monitor Vote by Mail returns and provide accurate data for phone banking and other activities designed to boost turnout.”
Voters who don’t receive their ballots by Election Day have the option of locating their polling location and casting an in-person ballot. They won’t be able to vote by machine – that is reserved for voters requiring special assistance – but can vote using a provisional ballot.
That too is problematic.
Many county clerks are printing extra provisional ballots for Election Day, but say they will run out if voters who don’t receive their VBM ballot create a rush on polling locations.
Murphy said this week that he still believes problems with the upcoming election will get fixed.
” I have a very high degree of confidence,” he said.
One election official put the blame squarely Murphy.
“You think maybe the governor pushing the election back a month and then waiting six weeks to give guidance on how to run it is what fucked this up?” a fourth official asked.