What you need to know about how to navigate both mail-in and in-person voting for the November election
New Jersey will hold a hybrid election on Nov. 3 because of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. Voters will have the choice to either use a mail-in ballot or vote in person at an open polling location. About 4 million ballots are expected to be cast, and nearly all of them are likely to be mailed in or dropped off at secure locations. Many people are still confused about how they will be able to vote.
Here are answers to some of the biggest questions:
How to obtain a mail-in ballot
Q: I want to vote by mail. Do I have to apply for a ballot?
A: No. Counties are automatically sending a mail-in ballot to every active, registered voter. That means more than 5.7 million people will receive a ballot. You are considered an active voter if you are receiving election mail from your county (a sample ballot or polling location notice) at the address where you registered to vote. If you are unsure about your registration status, you can check it here.
Q: I am not an active voter. How do I get a ballot?
A: Contact your county board of elections and verify that the address at which you registered to vote is your current address or update your registration with your current address. You can apply for a ballot by filling out a form. All the county forms are available here. These are self-addressed (you will have to print the form double-sided) or you can put it into an envelope, use the address on page 2 of the form and send it that way. You can also return it in person to that address. And you can also request a ballot by phone or in person from your county clerk.
Q: What is the deadline for requesting a mail-in ballot?
A: Oct. 23.
Q: I am not registered. Can I still vote?
A: You must register first. You can now register online. The deadline to register is Oct. 13.
Q: When will I get my mail-in ballot?
A: Ballots have already started to arrive in mailboxes, so watch out for yours. Counties must send them out to current, active registered voters by Oct. 5.
Q: What should I do if I haven’t received a mail-in ballot by Oct. 13?
A: Contact your county clerk’s office — the NJ Division of Elections lists all of them here. Keep in mind that if you are a recent registrant or an inactive voter requesting a mail-in ballot, yours may arrive later. If you have not received a mail-in ballot within a week after registering or requesting one, contact your county clerk.
How to complete a mail-in ballot
Q: How do I fill out my mail-in ballot?
A: It can be confusing. Follow all the directions on your ballot — to the letter. NJ Spotlight News created a video showing how to fill out a ballot prior to the July 7 primary election. There isn’t a universal statewide ballot so you may want to check your county website to see if officials have posted their own video showing how to complete it, as well.
Pitfalls to avoid when completing your mail-in ballot
Q: Any important tips to keep in mind when completing a ballot?
A: Based on the most common reasons for ballot rejections, make sure to:
- Complete your ballot early enough to get it to your county in time to be counted;
- Make sure to sign the certificate attached to the envelope in which you place your ballot, using your normal signature;
- Do not detach the certificate from the envelope; doing so would void your ballot;
- Remember to enclose your ballot in the inner envelope, seal that and then place it in the outer envelope, which you must also seal.
Q: What should I do if I make a mistake with my mail-in ballot?
A: You can request a replacement ballot by contacting your county clerk.
Q: I’m not sure my signature is the same as when I registered to vote. Could that mean my ballot won’t count?
A: Yes. A mismatched signature is one reason why a ballot could be rejected. If you think your signature has changed, you can submit a new signature right now by filling out a voter registration form, checking the “signature update” box and mailing it to your county election office. If you print out the application double-sided, then fold the form, you will not need to attach postage.
If, once you cast your ballot, election officials question your signature, they are required to give you a chance to fix that issue. In that case, the county will send you a letter to fill out in which you attest that you did actually vote the ballot. You must return that in a timely manner in order for your vote to count.
How to return your mail-in ballot
Q: How do I return my ballot?
A: There are four options:
- You can mail it back to the county board of elections. The return envelope is postage-paid, so you do not need to add a stamp;
- You can drop it into one of a dozen secure drop boxes that will be placed around each county. We will post a list on our elections page once they are all available. You can also find them on your county website or via the state Division of Election’s Voter Information Portal. Note that you can only place your ballot in a box in your own county, not in a different county, even if that location is closer, because ballots are counted at the county level.
- You can deliver your ballot in person to your county board of elections office.
- You can deliver it in person on Election Day to your designated polling location; you should receive a mailing from your county alerting you of this location before the end of October.
Q: Can someone else return my ballot for me?
A: Yes, but a person, known as a bearer, can only deliver three ballots in addition to their own. The bearer has to fill out the bearer portion of the outer envelope in front of the voter. If the bearer hand-delivers the ballots to the county board of elections — as opposed to mailing them or placing them in a drop box — they must sign the bearer book and show identification, such as a driver’s license. A bearer cannot deliver ballots for others to a polling location on Election Day. On that day, each voter must bring their own.
Q: When is the deadline for returning my ballot?
A: If mailing your ballot, you must do so by Nov. 3. There is a risk to waiting that long, however. Ballots received through Nov. 10 will be counted — provided they were mailed by the 3rd — but if the Postal Service does not get your ballot to the county board of elections by then, your vote won’t count. Thousands of ballots in New Jersey’s July 7 primary were rejected because they were not received within seven days after that election.
For all other delivery methods — in person to a polling location or to the board of elections or deposited into a secure drop box — the ballot must be delivered by the 8 p.m. close of polls on Election Day.
How to vote in person
Q: I don’t want to vote by mail. Can I vote in person on Nov. 3?
A: Yes. At least one polling location will be open in virtually every New Jersey municipality between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Election Day.
Q: Should I go to my usual polling location?
A: Not before checking that it is going to be open. Not all locations will be open in every municipality and some locations also may change to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19. You should receive a postcard or letter from your county alerting you of the location of your polling place. These will also be posted on the NJ Spotlight News elections page and on the state Division of Elections Voter Information Portal once all are finalized.
Q: Will I get to vote on a machine?
A: Not unless you have a disability that requires an accommodation. Nearly everyone who votes in person at a polling location on Nov. 3 will do so using a paper provisional ballot.
Q: But I have heard some say a provisional ballot is not a real ballot.
A: All provisional ballots cast by registered voters who had not already cast a mail-in ballot are counted. The use of provisional ballots instead of machines is a safeguard to ensure that a person does not vote twice — once by mail and once in person. Provisional ballots are counted after mail-in ballots for that reason.
How to make sure your vote counts
Q: How do I know my vote counted?
A: The state Division of Elections has a website where you can check whether your vote was counted, as well as your voter history. You need to sign up for this service before you can use it. It is easiest to sign up with your voter ID, which will be printed on your mail-in ballot, but you can also do so with information from your driver’s license.