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Action Together New Jersey executive director Winn Khuong

What A Reality-TV Star Can Teach Us About Elections During COVID-19

By David Wildstein, May 14 2020 3:55 pm

OPINION

Now that we have passed the first peak and just conducted an all-VBM election this week due to the coronavirus pandemic, we will need to look at the gaps and aggressively adopt proactive measures for our upcoming Primary Election in July.  And the three key determinants of a business’s success (or failure) as espoused by Marcus Lemonis, the star of NBC’s The Profit, are completely applicable to holding safe and secure elections in New Jersey.  It is critical that we provide the infrastructure that election officials and voters need via the three P’s:  People, Product, and Process.

Similar to businesses that have many locations and online and delivery options available to reach as many shoppers as possible providing them with many options to shop, we need to think of all options for voters to vote.  Shoppers shop:  Voters vote.  PEOPLE are always at the forefront of our considerations when it comes to elections, but especially during coronavirus or any widespread health emergency.  To ensure that voters can vote safely, we recommend Vote By Mail which has now reached into the public ether as a safe alternative to voting at the polls, which itself presents barriers to voters such as those who have physical, emotional, or mental disabilities and our 24-hr shift frontline workers.  But we know that to reach as many voters as possible, we need as many voting options as possible and this means keeping in-person voting at polling stations.  This is a necessary option for voters who cannot vote by mail such as voters who have mailing insecurity or delivery inconsistency, and voters with writing and sight deficiencies.

Equally important are the people holding our elections, the poll workers and county officials on the Clerk and Board sides.  Recruiting poll workers is notoriously difficult due to the long day and very low pay.  Poll workers, who are essential in our twice-yearly elections should make the minimum hourly wage they deserve.  Given that the majority of our poll workers are seniors who will unlikely work due to the hazard that coronavirus presents, we need to attract younger workers.  With the exponential increase in demand for mail-in ballots, we can help the county workers responsible for carrying out our elections by giving solutions that will both save them time and staffing needed to handle the volume.  This includes eliminating time-consuming and labor-intensive steps such as requiring clerks to manually process the applications for VBM ballots (send every qualified registered voter a mail-in ballot instead) and more time for ballot processing.

We have seen the high demand for staples like flour and toilet paper and many empty shelves leaving shoppers empty-handed.  The anticipated high use of mail-in ballots means we will need enough printed to meet demand.   We need Governor Murphy to give clear direction on how the Primary Election will be conducted because that drives the volume of ballots and envelopes needed to be printed and mailed.  All mail-in ballots should be sent with postage-paid return envelopes back to the county Board of Elections.  Just like the voter registration application, the State should be the central payee and provide the counties with the BRM permit indicia.  Other products critical for carrying out our elections are high-speed optical scanners to handle the volume and secure ballot drop-boxes which provides peace of mind for voters with mail insecurity and also bypasses the constraints of USPS which suffers from processing delays and staffing needs.  When 75% of Colorado’s votes and 47% of Washington’s votes are received through secure unstaffed ballot drop boxes, not having these will suppress voter turnout.

Like restaurants who changed their operations to meet the grocery needs of the consumer during this pandemic, perhaps most of the amendments to our current elections reside in the PROCESS of carrying out our twice-yearly elections.  This includes having COVID-19 compliance both at the polls and at the workplaces while our workers are processing our votes.   Having led the largest expansion of Vote By Mail in New Jersey in the last two election cycles reaching nearly 400,000 voters, some of our recommendations to the elections process needed to handle the increase in volume of voters, volume of mail-in ballots, and in time per voter due to COVID-19 compliance are:

  • Centralizing the operations where possible to realize cost and time efficiencies eg. BRM permit, bulk purchase secure ballot drop boxes, securing and providing federal and matching state funding.
  • Launching a statewide voter and poll worker education drive on the safety and security of Vote By Mail which will lower mistakes resulting in rejected ballots, improve awareness, and decrease fear of voting by mail.
  • Providing a robust and timely Ballot Tracking Portal that will allow voters to see the transparency and have confidence in our elections.
  • Ensuring the ability for voters to provide a cure to their ballot in case of rejected ballots such as mis-matched signatures and missing certification flaps.
  • Mitigating the spread of Coronavirus by ensuring every in-person polling place is COVID-19 compliant with CDC Guidelines of 6 feet distancing, facial masks, one-way directional arrows, and wiping and disinfecting every surface between voters.
  • Planning for the increase in time needed and flow of voters by instituting extended voting days and online appointment capability.
  • Providing dedicated time for at-risk populations to vote include seniors and immunocompromised persons.

We are not geniuses when we say that we predict that New Jerseyans will be voting from home in historic numbers this year.  The percentage of votes cast by mail-in ballot went from 4.57% in the 2016 Primary Election to 22.74% in the 2019 Primary Election, an off-off-off election year as it were.  This is partly due to the VBM “Grandfather Law” in 2018 and 2019 VBM “Fix Law”, but also due to the work of many organizations, including ATNJ Education Fund, to raise the awareness of the convenience of Vote By Mail.  This voting habit is here to stay.

Recently, ATNJ Education Fund submitted the Voting Safely Act, which legislates many of these recommendations.  Governor Murphy, Speaker Coughlin, and Senate President Sweeney must keep focus on the three P’s when enacting respective Executive Orders and legislation that will affect our elections.  Time is running out and our county election workers need clarity on how the Primary Election will be conducted.  And because voting is not a one-size-fits-all solution, voters need to be informed and made available of all options for voting.  There’s nothing more essential than our right and access to voting.  We ask for their support of the Voting Safely Act.

Winn Khuong is the executive director of Action Together New Jersey.  

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