By Philip Sean Curran
Monmouth County Clerk Christine Giordano Hanlon’s office is in a full-court press to comply with a new state law that expands the number of state residents who will automatically get a vote-by-mail ballot.
In August, state lawmakers used a special session of the Legislature to pass a bill ensuring that voters who voted by mail in 2017 and 2018 automatically would get such a ballot for future elections from the county clerk’s office in the county where they lived, unless they opted out. The measure expanded upon earlier legislation, passed in 2018, that only offered automatic ballots to voters who voted by mail in 2016.
“This change impacts over 13,000 voters in Monmouth County,” Hanlon said.
On Sept. 9, her office sent letters alerting voters to the change. They had until Sept. 19 to opt out of getting a mail-in ballot. That could be done by filling out a form provided by the clerk or submitting any signed notification in writing, returned either in the mail, in person or electronically, Hanlon said.
Residents who declined to opt out before the deadline will get a mail-in ballot for the November general election, with such ballots being mailed starting Sept. 21. Those voters will not be able to cast a ballot in the voting booth at their regular polling location Nov. 5. Yet
they could vote in person
by using a provisional paper
ballot, she said.
“It just seems like this might have been a better effort to do on a pilot basis in several towns or one county and work out the kinks,” John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said. “But I think it’s going to get worked out at a state level instead.”
He dismissed the possibility of vote-by-mail jeopardizing the integrity of elections through voter fraud. He said studies at the federal level have shown that there is “essentially no fraud in voting, that nobody, except in very rare instances, would go to the trouble of collecting absentee ballots somehow and having one person vote twice or something like that.”
Meeting the requirements of the law has been a labor-intensive effort for the county clerk’s staff, which has been working overtime to handle the opt out forms and all the related paperwork. Staff must change the statewide voter registration for each person who opts out so the voter does not receive a mail-in ballot and will instead be able to vote at the machines on Election Day.
“I think the whole program is absurd,” Monmouth County Freeholder Gerry P. Scharfenberger, a Republican running in November for state Assembly in the 13th district, said. “It’s got to cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousand if not millions of dollars to automatically send out ballots to people who have not asked for them.”
But Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, saying “our democracy is stronger when we make it easier for New Jersey citizens to participate,” lauded the Legislature for passing the bill. In his signing statement for the measure, he expressed support for expanding voting rights to felons and allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they turn 18 by the general election.
“Every resident in the state should be grateful that this new bill was passed,” Moira Nelson, a Democrat running this November for Monmouth County Freeholder, said. “Now, there’s no confusion. Those that signed up for vote by mail ballots will receive them. Everyone that wants to vote can do so. In a democracy, every citizen should be afforded the opportunity to vote.”
Off-year elections typically have lower voter turnouts compared to years when there is a statewide or national election on the ballot. In November, the state Assembly races are at the top of the ticket.
This article was first published in the September 19 – 25, 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.