New Jersey voters, beware!
Even if you’re a perfectly legal registered voter, you may not be allowed to vote by machine when you show up at your polling place on Nov. 6, Election Day 2018. Don’t worry, you’ll be allowed to vote, but only by using a paper provisional ballot.
Don’t freak out – it isn’t the poll workers’ fault. Still, an explanation is in order.
Maybe you always took your civic duty seriously, not only voting in presidential election years but in midterm and odd-year state elections and even school referendums, so seriously that when you knew you were going to be out of town on Nov. 8, 2016 you requested a vote-by-mail absentee ballot. But this year you’re home, and had no intention of voting by mail. So when you visit your normal polling place and you’re told, “sorry, but you’ll have to fill out a provisional ballot by hand,” it is perfectly understandable that you might angrily mutter a “say what?!”
Perhaps you’re a relatively new follower of the political scene in the U.S., deciding to vote for the first time in the highly contentious 2016 race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. You heard about voting-by-mail and figured that fitted your busy schedule so requested a mail-in ballot and voted that way. But this year you forgot about it and want to visit your polling place. If you’re told you’ll have to fill out a provisional ballot, will you be upset?
Could be you voted in the Nov. 7, 2017 election, picking between Democrat Phil Murphy and Republican Kim Guadagno for governor. Everything went smoothly – even though you voted by mail in 2016, so why worry about this year’s trip to the polls? There’s a reason.
On Aug. 10, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a new law that automatically ordered vote-by-mail ballots be sent to Garden State voters who cast their ballots that way in the 2016 general election unless they were to opt out by sending a letter to their county clerk. If you are sent a vote-by-mail, a.k.a. absentee, ballot in New Jersey, you’re not allowed to vote by machine at the polls, something that was true even before the new law was signed.
Election officials flag voters who have been sent a vote-by-mail ballot in the polling books, the ones in which you sign your name before heading behind the voting machine curtain. If you were sent an absentee ballot – even if you never received it due to a post office error, or mistook it for a sample ballot and tossed it into the garbage, or simply decided you want to vote at the polls this year and ignored it – you won’t be able to get behind that curtain this November.
You might be saying, “What?! I voted at the polls in 2017 even though I voted by mail the year before.”
True. But remember, the new law wasn’t signed until August of this year. Believe it, if you were mailed a vote-by-mail ballot you will not be allowed to vote by machine this November. Indeed, unless you opt out by telling your country clerk in writing you don’t want them, if you voted by vote-by-mail ballot in the 2016 general election you will automatically be sent vote-by-mail ballots for the rest of your life, unless, of course, you move out of state or the law is changed in the future.
So remember, don’t go ape on the polling place workers if you’re told to fill out a provisional ballot. They’re only following orders, indeed, following the law.
Bill Passes On Partisan Lines
The law was favored by Gov. Murphy and Democrats in both the Senate and Assembly but opposed by most Republicans.
There are approximately 2 million registered Democrats in New Jersey, but only about 1.2 million registered Republicans, while the largest bloc of all is independent voters, who number more than 2.3 million. But Democrats – not just in the Garden State but all over the country – tend to show up at the polls less than GOP voters in midterm elections. So the Democrats in Trenton figured mailing out vote-by-mail ballots to everybody who voted in the 2016 general election would induce more Democrats to vote in 2018.
The bill requiring vote-by-mail ballots to be automatically mailed to anybody who voted in the mail in 2016 passed by a 23 to 14 margin in the Senate, with three senators not voting. The vote was basically along partisan lines. The Republican senator who represents Southern Ocean County, Christopher J. Connors, was among the no votes.
In the Assembly the vote was 54 to 22 with three members not voting. Again, the vote was along partisan lines; again the members representing Southern Ocean County – Republicans DiAnne C. Gove and Brian E. Rumpf – voted no.
The passing of the law on Aug. 10 created nightmares for county clerks across the state, Democrat or Republican.
By law the first round of vote-by-mail ballots must be sent to voters by Sept. 22. But county clerks had to give voters the option of opting out. So they sent letters to the affected voters explaining the situation.
Ocean County Clerk Scott M. Colabella said 29,202 Ocean County voters went the vote-by-mail route in 2016, so he had plenty of letters to mail. He made it easy for voters to opt out of receiving a vote-by-mail ballot because at the end of his letter he gave them the option of checking an opt-out box and simply mailing his letter back to him.
Colabella gave voters up to a week before the Sept. 22 deadline to opt out. He sent them not one but two notices.
As of Oct. 23 Colabella said there were still about 11,000 of the 29,202 affected voters who hadn’t either opted out of receiving a vote-by-mail ballot or had already mailed in their absentee ballots. So he made sure that plenty of provisional ballots were printed that will be available at all polling places.
The new law will keep county clerks and election officials busy even after Election Day. In the past vote-by-mail ballots had to be received by 8 p.m. on election day to be counted. This year two extra days will be allowed for them to arrive.
Considering there will probably be a higher than usual number of provisional ballots that will also have to be counted, any close races in Ocean County will drag out longer than usual, causing candidates sleepless nights. Elections are normally certified by the Monday following Election Day. This year two extra days will have to be added to that number as well.
Even without the new law election officials figured to be busy this November. It is looking as if voter turnout will be unusually high for a midterm election.
Colabella has served in the Ocean County Clerks Office since 1993. He is plenty experienced with elections. But 2018 is turning out to be something unique thanks to the bases of both major parties being so ginned up in the age of President Trump.
“I’ve never seen a midterm like this,” said Colabella, who recently was selected to be president of the Constitutional Officers Association of New Jersey, the group representing New Jersey’s sheriffs, county clerks, registrars and surrogates.
In the 2014 midterm election only 12,540 Ocean County voters decided to vote early by mail. As of Oct. 23 close to 33,000 vote-by-mail ballots had already been received.