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Monmouth County Clerk Christine Hanlon (FILE PHOTO)

Lack of guidance leaves county clerks in lurch

Clerks send disparate messages about new mail-in ballot law

By Nikita Biryukov, September 11 2018 2:18 pm

Monmouth County Clerk Christine Hanlon and others sent out conflicting messages along with letters about vote-by-mail ballots they’re now required to send to voters who requested and received such ballots in a previous election.

“Please be aware that if you do not notify my office that you do not wish to receive a mail-in ballot for the November General Election by Sept. 14, 2018, your name will not appear in the poll book at your polling place on election day, and you will not be able to vote on the voting machines,” Hanlon said in the letter.

While the new ballot-access law enacted by Gov. Phil Murphy on Aug. 10 does sign voters up for what is essentially an auto-renew for mail-in ballots, receiving such a ballot does not preclude New Jersey residents from voting at the polls.

According to the governor’s office, voters will remain in the poll book if they receive a mail-in ballot, will be marked as having received such a ballot and will be able to vote via provisional ballot if they come to the polls on election day. This is the same process that existed before the new law was implemented.

“Governor Murphy believes that no voter should be disenfranchised,” Murphy deputy press secretary Alyana Alfaro said. “Expanded vote by mail is a critical step that will help ensure that all eligible voters are able to participate in the democratic process.”

The problem and the disparate messages sent out by clerks appear to stem from a lack of guidance provided by the governor’s office relating to the enforcement of the new law.

“If the governor’s office wanted all the letters to say that people could vote by provisional ballots, they should have sent us a draft letter because it appears that every county clerk is handling this a different way,” Hanlon said. “So, if the governor’s office wanted it handled a certain way, they should have given us a recommendation”

Essex County Clerk Christopher Durkin, who unlike Hanlon is a Democrat, sent out a letter almost identical to Hanlon’s that also said voters would not appear on the rolls in polling places in November and would not be able to use voting machines at those sites.

That letter, which has been posted below, was originally published on Twitter by Politico’s Matt Friedman.

While there’s little contention about the ability of a voter who receives a mail-in ballot to use a voting machine — statutorily, they cannot — the governor’s office and some clerks disagreed on the whether voters would appear on the rolls.

Some clerks, like Durkin, Hanlon and —Hanlon said — Ocean County Clerk Scott Colabella told voters they would not appear on the rolls, while others, like Somerset County Clerk Steve Peter, made no mention of the poll books.

Camden County Clerk Joseph Ripa called the new law “great news.”  A letter from Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello made it clear that voters on the vote-by-mail list could still vote at the polls by provisional ballot.

It’s possible that the disparate messaging will create confusion among voters separate to that encountered at the polls by voters who unknowingly received a mail-in ballot in.

But, Hanlon’s already concerned about election-day confusion.

“A provisional ballot makes voters very angry,” she said. “So, when voters go to the polls and they are offered a provisional ballot, they are furious because they don’t want to vote on a provisional paper ballot. It’s not an acceptable option for many voters because they think it’s not going to get counted, even though it is.”

Later on Tuesday, the Department of State issued a memo clarifying the confusion surrounding the new mail-in ballot law. The memo, which was sent to county clerks by N.J. Division of Elections Director Robery Giles, said voters do not need to opt out to keep their names on the rolls and said voters would be able to use a provisional ballot at the polls.

Giles also asked clerks to revise any communications that might have put out incorrect information.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated with the Division of Elections memo at 5:04 p.m. This article was extensively updated at 3:39 p.m. The headline was changed at the same time. A previous version of this article said Hanlon lied in her letter. She did not, and the Globe thoroughly apologizes for the error.

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3 thoughts on “Lack of guidance leaves county clerks in lurch

  1. So the county clerks don’t do their homework and write a BS letter to their constituents and somehow it is the Governor Murphy’s fault. I thought the rule was if it has your name on it you own it!

    Luckily here in Hunterdon County we have a excellent county clerk who is on top of her job and who sent out a factually correct letter. I got one and it was totally clear…

    If our county clerk could get it right why couldn’t the others?

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