Home>Campaigns>Vote-by-mail statistics paint murky picture of general election

Phil Murphy and Jack Ciattarelli at the New Jersey Gubernatorial Debate in Newark on September 28, 2021. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

Vote-by-mail statistics paint murky picture of general election

By Joey Fox, October 22 2021 4:11 pm

Vote-by-mail: for voters, it simply means one more option for how they can fit voting into the churn of their daily lives. For election analysts, however, vote-by-mail allows for detailed analysis of elections before they even occur, as hundreds of thousands of ballots arrive and are catalogued long before Election Day.

As of yesterday, New Jersey voters had returned 352,223 ballots – 16% of all votes cast in the 2017 gubernatorial election. An ongoing analysis of those ballots by the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University shows potentially positive news for both parties.

The topline result Rider has found is unambiguously good for Democrats. Of the 352,223 returned ballots, 227,786 are from Democrats – 64.7% of the total. 20.1% are from Republicans, and 14.9% are from unaffiliated voters.

This doesn’t mean that Gov. Phil Murphy is winning 64.7% of the voters, since party registration doesn’t always equate with vote choice. Nor does it mean Democrats have built an insurmountable lead; the number of votes still to be cast dramatically outweighs the votes already cast, and Democrats are typically far more likely to vote by mail anyways.

Instead, what it indicates is that Murphy and legislative Democrats likely have several hundred thousand votes already banked, while the same can’t necessarily be said for Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli and his legislative counterparts.

On the county level, the results grow more atypical. The two counties that have returned the most ballots, Camden and Middlesex, are both solidly Democratic. 26.1% of Camden’s registered voters have requested absentee ballots, and 9.9% have already returned one; those numbers are 20.8% and 7.7%, respectively, in Middlesex.

But the four counties that have the lowest ratio of returned ballots to registered voters – Hudson at 2.7%, Essex at 3.1%, Passaic at 3.2% and Bergen at 3.9% – are all also heavily Democratic, indicating that Democratic voters in North Jersey’s urban core have not taken to absentee voting as much as the rest of the state.

And looking at what percentage of requested ballots have already been returned – a very different metric, since it’s dependent on how many ballots were requested to begin with and not the county’s registration totals – Republicans may have reason to celebrate. 

Most counties where more than 40% of requested ballots have been returned are either consistently Republican (such as Monmouth, Warren, and Ocean) or competitive (such as Gloucester and Atlantic). Far lower on this metric are Hudson, Essex, Passaic, and Bergen, which each have returned ballots-to-requested ballots ratios of 30% or less.

Still, even in red counties like Ocean, a larger raw number of Democratic ballots have been returned than Republican ballots; in fact, there isn’t yet one county in the entire state where Republicans have outvoted Democrats.

All told, then, there are several competing signals: Democratic absentee ballots hugely outnumber Republican ones; urban Democratic counties have nevertheless been underrepresented in voting by mail; and the two standout counties, Camden and Middlesex, have no clear logic behind their outlier status.

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