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Gov. Phil Murphy. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

New Jersey general election to be conducted mostly through mail-in ballots

Murphy set to announce vote-by-mail election for November 3

By David Wildstein, August 13 2020 12:43 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy will order a general election conducted almost entirely through vote-by-mail ballots and an announcement could come as early as tomorrow, the New Jersey Globe has learned.

That means nearly 6.2 million voters would automatically receive VBM ballots for the November general election, with limited in-person polling locations available for voters requiring special assistance or for the casting of provisional ballots.

This will be New Jersey’s third vote-by-mail election this year after Murphy ordered local elections and referendums in 33 municipalities to be all-VBM on May 12 and then moved the June primary to a mostly mail-in ballot contest on July 7 as a way to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The governor called the July hybrid election a success.

Murphy is expected to expand the number of secure ballot drop box locations for the general election and continue to extend the number of days for ballots postmarked by Election Day to arrive at county election offices and still be counted.

New Jersey law allows two days for ballots to arrive after Election Day, but Murphy extended that to seven days for the primary.

Thousands of ballots arrived too late to be counted for the May election but the lengthening of time Murphy ordered for the July election reduced the number of rejected ballots considerably.

Murphy has the option of extending the time period to something longer than seven days.  Under a new law, California allows ballots postmarked by Election Day up to seventeen days to arrive at election offices and still be included in the count.

It’s not immediately clear how long voters will have to cure defects in their VBM ballots.  In the June primary, deficiencies like unmatched signatures had until July 23 to be corrected.

In addition to limiting the size of public gatherings, Murphy is also aware of potential shortages of polling places during a global pandemic.

With some public schools expected to reopened by Election Day, it’s unlikely that school officials would permit their facilities to be opened to the public as a polling place.  Other traditional polling locations, including senior citizen centers and houses of worship, may also be reluctant to allow outsiders.

It is also not clear what kind of challenges counties might face in recruiting Election Day board worker to work a traditional number of polling locations, especially if there is any spike in the spread of COVID-19.

The Murphy administration has informed several county election officials and some Democratic party leaders of their plans over the last few days, several sources confirmed.

General election ballots are due to start being mailed on September 19.

Murphy is expected to push the date for mailing ballots to around September 26, but federal law requires military and overseas ballots to go out by September 19.  Many of those ballots are sent by email.

That gives county election officials just six weeks to prepare.

A vote-by-mail general election could result in considerable vote-counting delays.

Nearly 1.47 million voters participated in the July primary election, about 87% of them through vote-by-mail ballots.

It took some counties more than a month to certify the results of that election.

Machines to count ballots vary by county.  Some places, like Essex, have purchased equipment that can count up to 40,000 ballots per hour.  Other counties move at a substantially reduced speed.

If 2020 turnout mirrors the last two presidential elections – 68% in 2016 and 67% in 2012 – that could mean an additional 2.75 million ballots would need to be counted.

It’s not clear whether Murphy will authorize early counting, an often controversial option that allows election officials to count votes before Election Day.

In New Jersey, where county party chairs appoint members of the Board of Elections, it might be challenging to keep early vote totals confidential.

Murphy has been a longtime supporter of early voting, where voters can go to a polling location to cast their ballots in-person before Election Day.

He said earlier this month that he remains hopeful that the legislature will pass an early voting law.

Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin both told the New Jersey Globe that they support early voting, although there is no indication that the legislature can get this done in time for the fall election.

Among the challenges are the necessity of electronic poll books and then technology for this system has not been tested.

The 2020 primary was the second-highest turnout in state history, surpassed only by a special 2008 presidential primary held on Super Tuesday.

President Donald Trump told Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo today that would block any effort to use federal funds to pay for vote-by-mail balloting.

Trump has alleged that VBM elections will lead to voter fraud.

There were no allegations of voter fraud in the July New Jersey primary, but the May local elections resulted in the arrest of two winners of the Paterson City Council election for ballot tampering.

Trump’s new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, has initiated substantial changes to how the U.S. Postal Service processes mail, including slowing down deliveries and reducing some high-speed sorting equipment.

Democrats have expressed concern that the restricting of the postal service by the Trump administration would disenfranchise voters.

Delays in the delivery of ballots at both ends were experienced during the May and July VBM elections in New Jersey.

Gov. Phil Murphy and the state’s congressional delegation pressed U.S. Postal Service officials on their failures in May and applied some pressure to improve ballot delivery for the July primary.

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