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New Jersey will likely see another mostly mail primary

State’s vaccine goal set a little more than a week before June 8

By Nikita Biryukov, January 20 2021 4:43 pm

New Jersey will likely see the return of mostly mail elections in the spring and summer as the state continues to grapple with the pandemic.

The state last began to administer vaccines that, so far, continue to be in short supply. Before taking office, President Joe Biden said he planned to invoke the Defense Production Act to boost the nation’s vaccine production.

Officials aim to have vaccinated 70% of residents, a figure they say will be enough to achieve herd immunity and begin a return to pre-pandemic normalcy, by Memorial Day. It’s not yet clear how increased vaccine production will affect that timeline, but health officials have identified supply shortages as the current bottleneck in the state’s vaccination strategy.

That timelines leaves little runway between the state’s goal and its June 8 primary. Even small delays can be problematic, and decisions about how voters will cast ballots must be made months earlier. Election officials need time to print and mail hundreds of thousands of ballots. It’s not something that can be done on short notice.

What’s important is when Murphy’s decision comes. If he orders a mostly mail primary in April, as he did last year, it’s likely primary day would be pushed back to July.

The governor has already delayed February fire district and March special school elections — and all other special elections — until April 20, 2021. There’s no word yet on whether those races will be held largely through mail-in ballots. Murphy said he’d make that decision in mid-February.

It’s possible to keep the primary tethered to June if he orders a mostly mail election as early as February or even March, though last year Murphy was often cautious in ordering rule changes, to the consternation of election officials who warned they needed a longer runway to administer what were then unprecedented elections.

Murphy is unopposed in his primary, and many Republican county leaders have coalesced behind former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli after former Republican State Chairman Doug Steinhardt withdrew from the race less than a week after the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

Ciattarelli’s win isn’t assured — he faces four other Republicans: Ocean County Commissioner Joe Vicari, former Somerset County Freeholder Brian Levine, businessman Joseph Rudy Rullo and perennial candidate Hirsh Singh — so primary rules will have a greater impact on him than on the incumbent.

There’s more good news for Murphy. Absent disruptions to the vaccine supply chain that massively slow the state’s inoculation efforts, in-person voting is likely for the general election.

Last year, Murphy ordered a mostly mail general election in mid-August. Assuming vaccine supplies hold, most New Jerseyans will have been inoculated by then, opening a path to safe in-person voting on election day.

While Democrats have traditionally put more effort and resources behind building out their vote-by-mail operations, Republicans in staunchly red counties like Sussex, Ocean and Hunterdon showed few qualms about voting by mail.

At 86%, Hunterdon’s turnout was the highest in the state. Sussex and Ocean, both at 78%, weren’t far behind.

The same wasn’t true of urban Democratic strongholds like Essex and Hudson Counties, where just 62% of voters returned their ballots. Murphy will need large margins there to win a statewide contest, and he’s likelier to get them with voters in polling booths than he is without.

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