COVID-19 has changed the way we work, socialize and yes, elect legislators and a president.
For the November 3 election, New Jersey has adopted a paper-based voting system, in which every registered voter receives a ballot that can be returned by mail and in secure drop boxes. Vote-by-mail eliminates the need to appear in person on election day, and paper-based elections aren't hackable.
New Jersey joins eight other states and the District of Columbia in having ballots mailed to all their registered voters.
Because the process is novel to most New Jersey voters — and due to unsupported allegations of widespread fraud amplified by a few elected officials — some Garden Staters may question whether their votes will count.
But while universal vote-by-mail is new to residents of New Jersey, it's been practiced for years by other states, and studies of their results should reassure concerned voters.
A Washington Post analysis of data from recent general elections in three vote-by-mail states — Oregon, Colorado and Washington — found that cases of fraud occurred at a rate of .0025 percent. Oregon, an early adopter, has documented only about a dozen cases of proven fraud among 100 million mail-in ballots over 20 years.
"There's a long history in the U.S. of using vote-by-mail, and the country has a strong track record," says Dr. Elizabeth Matto, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Youth Political Participation at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. "A number of states with different ideologies use vote-by-mail extensively or exclusively. For years, the military serving overseas and Americans living abroad have relied on it."
In 2016, one in four ballots was cast through the mail. Many of these were in states that allow for absentee voting, when voters request mail-in ballots. President Trump has publicly endorsed voting with absentee ballots and condemned universal mail-in voting.
But the only difference between these two processes is the way the ballots make their way to voters, says Darrell West, a senior fellow and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, the public policy nonprofit.
"People have to go through the same verification process either way," he says. "It's not like pizza flyers, where several are dropped off at your building and you can pick up a few. There are procedural safeguards built into the system."
New Jersey is new to universal mail-in voting, but election officials have learned valuable lessons from challenges posed in May's special elections and July's primaries.
"Voters should feel confident that every valid vote will be counted," says Robert Giles, director of the New Jersey Division of Elections. "We've been working hard to make this process as easy as possible while still ensuring safety."
The following seven elements, he says, combine to promote voting integrity.
1. Ballots have unique bar codes, and they can't be duplicated
In New Jersey, every registered voter receives a ballot with a unique bar code ensuring that it can be only counted once. This is similar to the way a movie ticket is purchased online and printed out; it can't be reused, because once it's scanned, it only allows the holder one seat. In addition to the unique bar code, says Giles, "Voter identification information is included in the ballot." He also notes that every county makes ballots with differing paper weights, sizes, styles and designs.
2. Signatures are matched to voter registration rolls
Just as when voters cast their votes in person, the signatures on their ballots must match the ones in their voting records. This is an anti-fraud measure, but it can sometimes concern voters who fear their signatures have changed over the years. "Voters whose ballots are rejected for a missing or mismatching signature will be contacted and given the opportunity to cure the signature defect," says Giles.
3. Ballots can be dropped off at secure locations
Voters may deposit ballots at any of the secure drop boxes in their county. Drop boxes, which will hold up to 2,500 ballots at once, are open 24 hours a day and until 8 p.m. on election day; ballots must be postmarked on or before November 3 to be considered. Whose who are unsure whether their ballots will arrive on time can also drop them off in person at the County Board of Elections or their designated polling places.
Want to know where to drop your ballot?:Here’s every NJ ballot drop box location
4. Voters have time to correct mistakes
The deadline for receiving mail-in ballots in New Jersey is October 5, weeks before the election. "We encourage voters to not delay and cast their ballots as soon as they've made their choices," says Giles.
In New Jersey, voters who aren't at the same address as when they registered, or whose ballots are for some reason undeliverable, may be deemed inactive voters, says Matto. The intervening weeks give them time to contact their county clerks and correct the record. If they receive ballots addressed to individuals who no longer live at their address or some other error, they should notify their election boards, Matto says, so they can correct their voter rolls.
If voters believe there are problems with their signatures or have otherwise filled out their ballots incorrectly, they also have a cushion of time to request replacements, says Matto. They can also go to trackmyballot.nj.gov to check their ballots' status. Vote by Mail ballots must be postmarked by November 3 and received by county board of election officials by 8 p.m. on November 10.
Voters can cast provisional ballots at polling locations on election day, but these will be counted starting November 10, after all the mail-in ballots have been accounted for, says Giles.
5. The Board of Elections is getting a head start, too
Governor Phil Murphy recently signed a law allowing election officials to begin counting mail-in ballots 10 days before the November 3 election, instead of election day itself. This should help workers handle the increased volume from 6.3 million voters receiving ballots.
6. There are big fines for voter fraud
There has been no evidence of systemic voter fraud this election cycle, but that doesn't mean individuals won't try to game the system. "There are real repercussions to voter fraud, enough to be a deterrent," says Matto. In May, when four men in Paterson were charged with manipulating mail-in ballots and committing voter fraud, the charges filed against them carried sentences of five to 10 years in state prison and fines of up to $150,000.
7. Experts know the difference between a mistake and fraud
"When voters are disenfranchised, it's almost always due to mistakes and technical errors," says Lorraine Minnite, associate professor of public policy at Rutgers-Camden and author of "The Myth of Voter Fraud." "Elections officials are always updating their lists. They have routines for running lists against driver's license, death and felony records to keep them as accurate as possible, but election administration is really hard work."
Fraud, she says, involves an intention to deceive, and election laws that criminalize double voting use the word "knowingly" in them. It is important to distinguish between criminal activity such as the attempt in Paterson, she says, and a misstep like the one committed by an election worker in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, who mistakenly threw out nine military ballots that may have been improperly addressed instead of storing them for future scrutiny. Though President Trump has repeatedly cited the incident as an example of voter fraud, on September 30, the Pennsylvania Secretary of State declared that it was not "intentional fraud."
"We should be looking at eliminating the disenfranchisement that comes from these mistakes, instead of at the boogie man of voter fraud that doesn't exist," says Minnite. "We have to ensure the greatest levels of participation in democracy, because it's important to the outcome."