The glacial reveal of results from New Jersey’s latest general election has left lawmakers dissatisfied and with a growing appetite for reform.
A prohibition on counting mail-in ballots before Election Day, uncertainty around the number of uncounted ballots, and a days-long grace period for late-arriving mail votes have made Election Day seem like election week with growing frequency in recent years.
Republicans have suggested removing the six-day grace period for postmarked ballots that reach officials after Election Day.
“Vote-by-mail needs to be in by close of business on Election Day,” said state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth). “You can drop off your vote by mail to a drop box. We have them. They’re not going away. Don’t drop them in the mail Election Day.”
New Jersey began accepting late-arriving mail-in ballots during its all-mail elections last year in a bid to curb widespread rejections for late ballots that were sent before polls closed.
The first all-mail races, held last May, saw 9.6% of all ballots rejected, often because the ballots reached election workers after what was then a two-day grace period. Longer grace periods for the 2020 primary and general elections cut rejection rates to 2.8% and 1.4%, respectively.
The grace periods also serve to extend elections. There’s no way to know how many ballots election officials will receive in the days after polls close, and provisional ballots cannot be counted until all mail-in votes have been canvassed as a safeguard against double voting.
A law passed last year allowed election officials to count mail ballots in the 10 days preceding the 2020 general election, but no similar accommodations were made this year, leaving counting in stasis until the morning of Election Day. For a county like Bergen, which saw nearly 50,000 mail-in ballots for the last election, counting them all is time consuming.
Early counting was opposed by Republicans and progressives, who feared the process would allow county political parties to use non-public mail-in vote totals to divert resources to shore up weaknesses in the final days of an election (officials who shared tallies before the close of polls could face up to five years imprisonment). But this year’s experience may change some minds.
“Quite frankly, there should be almost no uncounted votes. They need to be able to start counting some days before Election Day,” said O’Scanlon, who stopped short of endorsing last year’s bill and, like all other Senate Republicans, voted against it.
Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), one of the early counting bill’s prime sponsors, on Tuesday said he intends to introduce a bill that would permanently allow officials to tally mail-in votes before Election Day.
Strain can keep uncounted ballot totals hazy
Uncertainty surrounding the number of uncounted ballots in a given race further complicated things on Election Day and in the days after.
County election boards can readily identify the number of mail-in ballots received and tallied, but such ballots must first be scanned into the Statewide Voter Registration System. The system updates in real time, but there’s no guarantee that busy election officials, in the last days of an election cycle, will have time to process mail-in ballots they don’t intend to count right away.
That strain is often worst in heavily Democratic counties, which tend to be more populous and where more voters cast their ballots by mail.
“It’s not as easy as just saying ‘all you have to do is have someone scan the mail when it comes in.’ Again, thousands of pieces of mail, just to scan would be tough,” said Wyatt Earp, an Ocean County Board of Elections Commissioner and the county’s Democratic chairman.
He added election officials may also have to sort arriving mail-in ballots by town to simplify any possible recounts or election challenges, though those procedures will vary by county, and few counties publicly report the number of ballots still waiting to be counted.
Staff shortages caused by the pandemic and compounded by early in-person voting — a recent addition in New Jersey — may have made it more difficult to process received mail-in ballots, and the practice could see changes.
“Early voting, I think we need to look at the cost versus the number of people that took advantage, and I think we can then decide,” Sen. James Beach (D-Camden), chair of the Senate State Government, Wagering, and Tourism Committee, told the New Jersey Monitor Monday.
There were 207,863 ballots cast at early voting sites around the state this year, about 8% of the roughly 2.6 million votes cast in the governor’s race.
Opacity enflames distrust
Requiring election officials to post the number of mail-in ballots received but not yet counted could solve a perceived issue that threatens to undermine trust in New Jersey elections.
Because New Jersey Democrats vote by mail in far larger numbers than Republicans — and because such ballots take longer to process and count than machine votes favored by GOP voters — Republican candidates who find themselves ahead on election night sometimes see their leads evaporate as more ballots are counted days after polls close.
Republican Senate candidates led in the 11th and 16th districts on election night, but Democrats claimed those seats after more mail-in ballots were tallied. The same happened to Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli, who appeared to lead Gov. Phil Murphy on election night but now trails the incumbent by about three points.
The response among some GOP voters has been to claim election fraud, though Ciattarelli has urged against claims of election fraud, of which there has been no evidence.
Ciattarelli instead has called for uniformity and prescriptive guidelines for reporting election results. Democrats have also suggested they’d like to see election results reported under a stricter framework.
“I think the important thing with that is everything should be posted online through the county websites at the end of each day’s work,” said Beach, who chairs the Camden County Democratic Committee.
Home rule issues
Reporting procedures for election results in the state’s 21 counties are far from uniform.
Some counties report results delineated by voting method, while others do not. Some include mail-in and early voting totals along with Election Day tallies, while others post mail-in results separately.
Some counties, notably Camden, post estimates of the number of ballots received but not yet counted, but most do not, and the number of uncounted ballots often remains unclear for days after the election, even accounting for late-arriving ballots.
“I’d like to see more uniformity,” said Sen. Michael Testa, the Cumberland County Republican chair, adding he believes results should be known on election night in most cases.
It remains to be seen whether more counties adopt additional transparent reporting practices, but it’s possible they won’t have much of a choice.
“We should be as uniformed as we could possibly be while still allowing for individual differences within the counties,” Beach said.