For hundreds of years, New Jersey voters have voted in their local precinct polling places (800 registered voters per precinct), with only a tiny percentage voting absentee. This year, for reasons of public health in the pandemic, all voters will receive a mail-in ballot; a few polling places will be open on November 3rd for voters who need other accommodations or to vote by provisional ballot.
Thus, New Jersey has had to implement in 6 months what some western states did over a many-year period: switch to all vote-by-mail. Some of those states have developed procedures and know-how to do it very well; can New Jersey catch up, without being overwhelmed?
I spoke to Nicole DiRado, Administrator of the Union County (NJ) Board of Elections, whose office handles the mail-in ballots. Most years, that’s a few thousand ballots that they process on election day. This year it will be very different.
New this year in NJ are drop boxes. Union County will ultimately have a drop box in every municipality. Bipartisan teams of Board of Elections employees will collect ballots from every drop box, every day, in the 45 days before the election. They will also collect their U.S. mail twice a day once voters start returning their ballots.
Each day’s collection is received at the BoE offices in Elizabeth, NJ, for “staging”. Members of the public can, in principle, observe this process from the “public” side of the walk-up counter. Staging includes: sorting by municipality and ward/district; comparing signatures with the State Voter Registration System. For signature matching, BoE workers have access to a “signature history” from that voter, from DMV records and from voter-registration records, but not from every previous election (because NJ’s pollbooks are not electronic). After staging, the ballot envelopes go into the vault.
New this year is ballot tracking offered on the NJ Division of Elections’ website. The tracking numbers are not USPS tracking–they can’t tell you where inside the U.S. mail your ballot is–but the tracking system can tell the voter: when the County Clerk cleared the absentee ballot for mailing to the voter; when it was received back from the voter by the BoE; whether the ballot was accepted or not. (The tracking system does not seem to say when exactly the County Clerk mailed the ballot to the voter.)
When Election Board Commissioners reject a ballot (due to a deficiency in signature), the voter is contacted by U.S. mail. (By law, the Commissioners include two Democrats and two Republicans.) The voter is mailed a form to fill out and sign (with the ability to provide other identifying information), and return by U.S. mail. I asked, “can the voter drop that form into one of the drop boxes”? Ms. DiRado responded, “I would certainly accept that”, but it didn’t seem to be a formal statewide policy. She said she has accepted, through drop-boxes, voter registration forms and requests for absentee ballots. (This year in NJ, absentee ballots will be mailed out even if the voter doesn’t request it.)
Receiving and staging of ballots begins well over a month before November 3rd. From time to time there are “inspection periods”, where members of the public can inspect the ballot envelopes to challenge a ballot. The first such inspection period (in Union County) is October 9th. After each inspection period (for example, on October 10th), Union County’s ballots are transported to a facility in Linden, NJ. Because the BoE needs a lot more space for a lot more workers to process the ballots, they have acquired additional space for that part of the process (see video).
First, the perforated tab with voter-identifying information is removed from the outer envelope — but the envelope is not yet opened. Credentialed challengers can observe this process in person, other members of the public from a live-stream video.
In late August 2020, the NJ Legislature passed (and the governor signed) 3 bills regarding election procedures. Now, starting 10 days before November 3rd, the envelopes can be opened and run through the scanners. Ms. DiRado said that her staff will open envelopes and flatten ballots, but will likely wait just a few days before election day to begin running them through the scanners. Opening and prepping the ballots is far more labor-intensive and will take much longer than running them through the county’s high-speed scanners. Members of the public can observe all of these processes at the Linden facility (as above: credentialed challengers in person, others on live-stream). There will be Sheriff’s officers to ensure that the challengers don’t interfere with the procedures.
The BoE will have several safeguards in place to avoid premature leaks of vote counts. With every batch of ballots, the machine will report how many ballots are in the batch (and then the ballot papers, but not the votes on them, will be hand-counted to make sure it matches); but the vote totals will be retained in the machine’s memory and not reported until an explicit report is run, on November 3rd. No one is authorized to run that report before November 3rd. The optical scanners log any such reports, and the State will audit those logs after the election, to make sure no unauthorized reports were run.
I went online at https://voter.svrs.nj.gov/auth/sign-in to track my ballot. To log in to that site, voters need to provide their name, DoB, and a number. Voters who registered after 2005 using a driver’s license as ID, can use their driver’s license number. Voters who put a SSN on their voter registration, can use the last 4 digits. Other voters will have to use their Voter ID number — but nobody knows their own Voter ID number, unless they happen to have saved old sample ballots or voter-registration cards. This is going to be a problem! The County Clerk will mail every voter a postcard with this info; or voters can contact their county election officials (link provided on the tracking-system login page) to for help with this. Ms. DiRado helpfully looked up my number and provided it to me. I logged into the system and it says my “General Election Mail-in Ballot Request received date” is 8/14/2020. I didn’t request a ballot, so I assume that’s the date my County Clerk requested mail-in ballots for every voter in Mercer County. The “Request processed date” is 8/30/2020. There is no such field as “Ballot mailed to voter date” (and I think that would be worthwhile). As of September 11th, I had not yet received a ballot in the mail. The “Ballot received date” is N/A (which is good because I haven’t sent it back yet!) and “Ballot status” is N/A. I can’t tell whether “Ballot status” will track, in a timely way, whether the signature has been accepted.
In summary: I am optimistic that New Jersey is doing a good job in getting its act together in a hurry–from the Legislature and Governor down to the County Boards of Elections (at least Union County, anyway). What voters should do is use those dropboxes to return your ballots, or if you must mail in your ballot, do so as early as you can.
By the way, official government agencies such as the New Jersey Division of Elections shouldn’t use .org domain names like njelections.org, they should use .gov instead. Anyone can get a .org domain name, but only authenticated governmental entities can get a .gov. Therefore, using njelections.gov would be more secure: fraudsters can try to fool voters by setting up newjerseyelections.org, but they have a much harder time creating fake .gov domains.
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Author: Andrew Appel