Click play for audio version of this story
In a move that creates even more confusion with New Jersey election law, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has decided that voters who requested vote-by-mail ballots in 2017 and 2018 must reapply to receive mail-in ballots for the upcoming election.
That means Democratic candidates seeking to flip Republican Assembly seats won’t be able to ride the coattails of vote-by-mail programs conducted by the Murphy for Governor campaign in 2017, and by Democratic candidates in 2018.
A new law approved last year granted forever VBM status to any voter who previously requested mail-in ballots, unless they specifically opt out.
With the exact language of the legislation up for interpretation, the state has determined that the new law applies only to VBM requests made in 2016 and before.
“The Division of Elections instructed county clerks on how to process vote-by-mail applications within the State Voter Registration System in accordance with the legislation enacted in August 2018,” said Alicia D’Alessandro, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Tahesha Way.
One co-sponsor of the legislation thinks the Murphy administration got this wrong.
“The legislative intent was always to make sure it was for all those years,” said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick), the co-sponsor of the VBM bill. “The intent was not to cut it off at a certain date.”
Several county clerks told the New Jersey Globe that they were advised that the Division of Elections had essentially suspended automatic vote-by-mail ballots to voters who requested them in 2017 and 2018.
The clerks were told about the changes in a conference call with Robert Giles, the director of the state Division of Elections, the Globe has learned.
Those voters were tagged by the Division of Elections on July 19 as S647 in the SVRS system, a reference to the bill that created the automatic vote-by-mail program.
Morris County Clerk Ann Grossi told voters affected by the new ruling that “a newly-enacted law voided your previous option to receive vote-by-mail ballots in all future general elections.”
“In order to continue to receive vote-by-mail ballots, you must fill out the new applications and return it to the …clerk’s office no later than October 29,” wrote Grossi, who appears to be mistaking an administrative ruling for a new law.
In 2018, at least some county clerks mailed ballots to voters who first requested them the previous year. Those clerks said the state never instructed them not to.
Leaders of both parties seemed surprised to learn of the recent rule change, saying they never heard from the Murphy administration about any issues involving the VBM law.
The proposed changes never came up in a closed-door meeting Murphy had with Democratic county chairs in East Brunswick last week, several sources in the meeting said.
Some Democrats have complained that Murphy took 51 days to sign the bill last year, forcing county clerks to change their handling of VBM ballots less than three months before the general election.
Bob Menendez’s U.S. Senate campaign expended resources on building a vote-by-mail program last year, as did congressional candidates Andy Kim, Tom Malinowski and Mikie Sherrill.
The new ruling essentially takes some voters out of the pool in what is expected to be a low-turnout election, especially in the 8th, 21st and 25th districts where Demcorats think they have the best chance of pickup up Republican Assembly seats.
In many cases during the 2018 mid-term elections, Democratic candidates did better with mail-in ballots than on the election day machine tally.
In the Union County portion of the 7th district, Malinowski won 64% of the vote-by-mail ballots and 58% of the machine vote in his race to unseat a five-term Republican congressman.
Most of those towns are also in the 21st legislative district, where Democrats are looking to oust Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield).
Democrats are expected to mount some sort of effort, legislative or legal, to fix the confusion.
“If we did not get the language precise, we need to be in communication so we can clean this up. It seems pretty straight forward,” Zwicker said. “As easy as it is to strike them, it’s equally as easy to unstrike them. We need to have a conversation with the Secretary of State.2018-Memo-ProcessingVotebyMail