Update: The Senate and Assembly have scheduled a quorum call for Friday at 4:30 PM and could schedule a voting session early next week.
The Legislature could be called back into session within the next couple of weeks to address fixes to the state’s vote-by-mail law, the New Jersey Globe has learned.
The urgency stems from a ruling by Secretary of State Tahesha Way that forces voters who requested VBM in 2017 and 2018 to reapply if they want mail-in ballots for the November general election.
Legislative leaders have been working with Gov. Phil Murphy’s staff since late last week in search of administrative changes that could avoid the Senate and Assembly returning to Trenton to clear up possible errors in the VBM law passed last year.
The New Jersey Globe first reported the vote-by-mail ruling last week.
That law required VBM ballots be sent to any voter who requested them for the 2016 presidential election or earlier.
The state Division of Elections has interpreted that to mean that voters who requested mail-in ballots over the last two years do not have forever-VBM status.
Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick), one of the sponsors of the legislation, disagrees. He says the legislative intent was to include 2017 and 2018.
No agreement to adjust Way’s ruling has been reached so far, numerous sources have confirmed.
County clerks are scheduled to begin mailing ballots one month from today.
Action Together New Jersey, an influential grassroots progressive group, today called for an emergency legislative fix and wants Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin to work together to get the job done.
“We believe that the Board of Elections and the County Clerks need legislative clarity on both the intent of the law and the mechanisms to execute it,” the organization said in a statement. “This needs to include addressing the 2017/2018 gap by grandfathering all VBM voters who have previously applied for VBM to automatically receive mail-in ballots regardless of which application they used. This legislative fix will benefit all voters, taxpayers, and employees who work for the Board of Elections and the organization of County Clerks.”
The issue could have a significant effect on the mid-term elections in key State Assembly races and in a special election for State Senate in the 1st district.
In addition to Murphy’s own efforts to boost vote-by-mail turnout in his campaign for governor two years ago, Democrats made a huge push during the 2018 campaign.
Most of the battleground Assembly races – in the 8th, 21st and 25th districts – are in parts of the state where U.S. Senator Bob Menendez and Reps. Andy Kim (D-Marlton), Tom Malinowski (D-Rocky Hill) and Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair) expended considerable resources on a vote-by-mail program. Groups like ATNJ also spent time and money on enhancing VBM turnout in 2018.
Including the 2017 and 2018 vote-by-mail universe for 2019, traditionally an off-off year when it comes to voter turnout, would be hugely advantageous to Democrats. Election results show that in key legislative races, the Democratic advantage could be as much as 70%.
“The tilt is absurd,” one Democratic official told the Globe.
According to Action Together New Jersey, about 169,000 New Jersey voters switched from machine voting to VBM since the 2016 general election.
“Based on the Voter Data publicly available from the state, there are 130,000 voters who voted by mail in the 2018 General Election who no longer appear as VBM voters and therefore will not get mail-in ballots they may be expecting,” ATNJ said.
If the Legislature passes fixes in a special session, Murphy would need to move quickly to sign the bill. Even a minor delay could render legislative fixes moot.