State and local election officials are working on a plan to cancel in-person voting for the June primary election and replace it with a vote-by-mail only election as the state deals with the coronavirus pandemic, the New Jersey Globe has learned.
Details are still being worked out and plans have not been finalized, according to more than a dozen election officials across the state who have been involved in some parts of the planning.
Gov. Phil Murphy possesses astonishingly broad constitution powers during a state of emergency. It’s not immediately clear if Murphy would make changes to upcoming elections by executive order, or by asking the State Senate and Assembly to pass enabling legislation.
Murphy and his staff have declined comment on changes to upcoming elections since last week. So has Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver.
The governor is considering different options on how to handle upcoming elections, including a referendum in Atlantic City on March 31 to decide on a proposed change in their form of government.
Murphy is also considering options for the April 21 school board elections, ranging from an all-VBM contest to a postponement until November, when most municipalities elect Board of Education members.
Several election officials said running an election entirely through VBM ballots in just a month would be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.
For more than a dozen municipalities holding May 12 non-partisan municipal elections, early voting starts on March 28.
The Murphy administration is also considering moving those races to all-VBM, although postponing them to a later date is also on the table.
Among the challenges faced in conducting upcoming elections: an availability of resources.
Several election officials cited an anticipated shortage of Election Day poll workers, many of whom are senior citizens in a high-risk category. Training programs could also be impacted.
There is also a concern that the COVID-19 crisis will make some polling locations unavailable, specifically places that are practicing social distancing strategies.
“Counties use houses of worship, firehouses, senior citizen housing buildings and town halls as polling places,” one election official said. “Who’s going to want people coming in to vote?”
Schools, now-closed throughout the state, might not be overly anxious to open their doors for voting, the official said.
Combining polling locations could attract larger groups of people and enhance health risks.
Of Atlantic City’s nineteen polling locations, eight are schools, six are located in low-income or senior housing, four are churches, and one is the Salvation Army facility.
“What happens if the referendum passes with voter turnout at, say 2%? Then what?” one Central Jersey official advocating postponements of some elections asked. “You going to find some judge to invalidate the results just because nobody showed up?”
Vote-by-mail only would be tough
An all-VBM election would eliminate the need for poll workers and voting sites, but it’s no easy task.
In addition to 2.33 million Democrats and 1.34 million Republicans, vote-by-mail ballots might also need to be sent to nearly 2.4 million unaffiliated voters, sometimes known as independents.
In New Jersey, unaffiliated voters can show up at the polls on primary day and choose to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary.
That might require ballots for both primaries be sent to unaffiliated voters, perhaps with these instructions: if you want to remain unaffiliated, don’t do anything; if you want to vote, return either the Democratic or Republican ballot. Voting in both primaries would invalidate both ballots.
The presence of marquis names on the ballot – Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders – would likely increase participation by unaffiliated voters, several election officials said.
“Folks in New Jersey are anxious to vote in the presidential election,” a county chair told the Globe. “Put a ballot in the hands of independents and tell them they can vote for Trump or Biden in June and you’ll see primary turnout go through the roof.”
When a ballot makes its way into someone’s home, they become more likely to vote. In 2019, a new VBM law triggered a significant 5% increase in voter turnout over 2015.
Counties where county clerks pick up the tab for return postage outperform places where voters must add a stamp to their ballot by as much as 20%, according to a comparison of turnout in various elections last year.
Some election officials said the move to an all-VBM election might be close to revenue neutral.
“You spend more on printing and postage, sure,” an official said. “But then you don’t have to pay board workers or fees to use the polling place. Maybe it’s a wash.”
Elections in Oregon are almost exclusively by mail, with just a small handful of polling locations made available for those resisting change.
Primary election turnout was 36% in 2014, 54% in 2016, and 34% in 2018.
In New Jersey, turnout in primary elections was 8% in 2014, 26% in 2016, and 13% in 2018.
In the hotly-contested 3rd district GOP congressional primary, Kate Gibbs has called for an all-VBM primary.
The district has 216,897 unaffiliated voters who would have the option of participating in the Republican primary. That number eclipses the 154,763 registered Republicans and creates enormous uncertainties in the race.
Richter criticized Gibbs for worrying about how her election is conducted in the middle of a public health and economic crisis.
“As participants in that process we should not be making recommendations on how the election is carried out, that is up to the State of New Jersey to determine,” Richter said.
In New Jersey’s 5th district, 219,72 unaffiliated voters would be more likely to declare a party affiliation of they were mailed primary election ballots. The district has 165,021 Democrats and 157,255 Republicans.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff) faces a primary challenge from Arati Kreibich, a progressive councilwoman from Glen Rock. The addition of voters who have previously declined to participate in primary election would likely favor Gottheimer, who has already won the district twice with support from unaffiliated voters.
Republicans also have a spirited primary going on in the 5th.
Logistical issues of an all-VBM primary
There are some potential logistical issues by converting to an all-VBM primary.
An election official suggested that printing more than 6.1 million VBM ballots that are compatible with optical scan readers utilized in each county, as well as made-to-order inner and outer envelopes, is no easy task.
“The envelopes need glue that works, you know,” another official said, referring to a Morris County election challenge last year because a printer allegedly used a faulty adhesive on provisional ballot envelopes.
Several election officials suggested that the postponement of 2020 county committee elections might reduce the number of different ballots county clerks need to print and mail for the June primary.
In Bergen County, for example, there are 561 voting districts, each have different candidates for county committee.
“We could print ballots for every town, instead of every district,” an election official said. “That would be a lot easier.”
Moving 2020 county committee races to 2021 could work against Democratic county chairs long-term, especially if Murphy declines certain organization lines next year and instead forms his own slate that could result in party leadership battles.
Postponing the June 2 primary until the summer – New Jersey used to hold primaries in September – won’t work. If the state doesn’t elect delegates to the national political conventions by the end of June, they could forfeit their delegate seats.
Counting VBM ballots – 1,388,669 New Jerseyans cast votes in the 2016 primary election – could be a huge undertaking for county Boards of Elections.
That could press county freeholder boards to utilize a new law passed in 2019 that increases the size of the Board of Elections by adding one new commissioner from each party. Few counties have pulled the trigger on that.
In the old days New Jersey statewide elections were won and lost by who won the state’s unaffiliated voters.
Now, with nearly one million more Democrats than Republicans, the so-called independents have an increasingly lower impact on the outcome of general elections.
Exit polls in the last three statewide elections show tight races for New Jersey’s unaffiliated voters.
In 2018, CNN exit polls gave Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bob Hugin a 49%-46% lead among independents. Incumbent Bob Menendez won the race by nine points.
Murphy won independents by a 50%-46% when he ran in 2017, NBC News exit polls showed. Among all voters, Murphy won, 56%-42% against Kim Guadagno.
In the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton carried independents in New Jersey by a 47%-45% margin, according to a CNN exit poll. She beat Trump by 14 points statewide.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story characterized Richter as being opposed to all-VBM elections. He says he never was, just that Gibbs seemed to consumed by it.