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New Jersey’s Vote-by-Mail Has Nearly Doubled During Pandemic

The state’s vote-by-mail number has climbed nearly 220,000 ahead of the November general election. Camden County has the state’s highest rate of participation and will be mailing ballots to all registered voters.

(TNS) — New Jersey voters will have more options than ever when it comes to casting their ballots in this November’s General Election.

Election Day is Nov. 2, but in-person early voting — a first in New Jersey — will run from Saturday, Oct. 23, through Sunday, Oct. 31.

In addition to in-person opportunities, vote by mail continues to grow in popularity across the state and appears to be gaining more traction following last year’s almost entirely vote-by-mail November election, which was triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

As of 2020, about 600,000 voters statewide had chosen to receive vote by mail ballots for all elections. That figure had climbed to nearly 818,000 as of last week, according to figures from the state Division of Elections. For the upcoming election, 862,200 mail-in ballots had been sent out from county clerks’ offices around the state as of last week and 163,138 of those had already been returned.

While mail-in ballots were sent to all homes last year, only those who previously selected to vote by mail or who have requested mail-in ballots for the upcoming general election will receive them. Vote-by-mail applications include options to receive mail-in ballots for all future elections or for specific elections.

Eight states, most recently California, have enacted universal vote by mail, with laws requiring that every voter be mailed a ballot. New Jersey isn’t pushing for this approach yet — preferring to leave voters with a range of choices for now — but some counties are actively encouraging voters to cast mail-in ballots.

Camden County, which saw the state’s highest vote-by-mail participation rates in 2019 — 34.3 percent in the general election and 50.3 percent in the primary — is mailing out vote-by-mail ballot applications to all registered voters who haven’t already signed up for this option.

So far, they have sent out more than 91,800 vote-by-mail ballots for the November election and that figure will increase as requests continue arriving, officials said.

“We’ve been one of the highest ones for quite a few years now,” said Camden County Deputy Clerk John Schmidt. “A lot of that is due to the cooperation that we get from our board of county commissioners. They’ve been very helpful in providing us with the means to promote vote by mail.”

The state’s philosophy on voting options is straightforward.

“Voting should be as easy and efficient as possible for eligible voters,” said Alicia D’Alessandro, spokeswoman for the secretary of state.

Voters can request a vote by mail ballot through the mail up to a week before Election Day and in person up to the day before the election, D’Alessandro said.

Vote-by-mail participation has grown steadily in New Jersey during the last 18 years, according to statewide statistics.

In 2003, 2.6 percent of all ballots cast in the General Election were mail-in. That figure hit 12.3 percent in 2018 and 16.7 percent in 2019.

Since the 2020 election was primarily mail-in, thanks to the pandemic, the figure last year was 93.5 percent.

If the 2021 primary election is any indication — 28.6 percent of ballots were cast by mail in June — the popularity of mail-in voting will only continue to increase.

Additional voting options are important, officials believe, in an age when work schedules and child care duties make getting to a polling place on a single day a challenge for many.

“It’s not a 9-to-5 world anymore,” Schmidt said. “Times are changing and we think it’s important that every voter is able to cast their vote in a convenient fashion.”

Gloucester County has also seen robust vote-by-mail rates — 47.9 percent in the primary and 21.2 percent for the general election in 2019 — and has invested heavily in equipment and security measures to handle vote-by-mail ballots, explained County Clerk James Hogan.

The process is secure, he said, noting that they have 11 drop boxes around the county for voters to deposit their ballots if they don’t want to mail them.

Fire suppression and security systems assure the ballots remain safe until they are opened for counting on Election Day. Ballot pick-ups from drop boxes are handled by retired law enforcement officers who are accompanied by sheriff’s officers equipped with body cameras and police car cameras to ensure the ballots are secure, Hogan noted.

Following a career in law enforcement that included jobs as police chief and county sheriff, Hogan’s training in protecting the chain of custody for evidence came in handy.

“We just applied that whole process to this vote-by-mail system,” he said.

Gloucester doesn’t send out vote-by-mail applications to voters unsolicited, Hogan said, but they can access the application on his department’s website.

He is also seeing an increase in demand.

While they were planning on about 26,000 vote-by-mail ballots this year, they are now up to 30,000 applications and more are coming in, Hogan said.

In 2016, Essex County had 10,000 voters submitting ballots by mail.

“Five years later, we are currently at more than 55,000 ballots that we have mailed to voters,” reported Essex County Clerk Christopher Durkin.

The 2020 election season demonstrated that New Jersey’s counties can handle vote by mail on a large scale, Durkin said.

“Going through last year, where the turnout was the largest ever, that was the best test run you could ever have — a presidential election being an all vote by mail.”

He urged voters using this option to remain careful about completing their ballots.

“One thing that voters need to be mindful of is that it’s a multi-step process to vote by mail,” he said. “There are chances to make mistakes, so it’s important to be mindful and make sure you follow each step in the vote-by-mail process in order to have your vote count.”

If people are going to use the secure ballot drop boxes, rather than the U.S. Postal Service, to return their ballots, they have to use the boxes in their own counties, D’Alessandro noted.

It’s not clear if these additional voting options will drive increased turnout.

High turnout seen last year — turnout is always higher in presidential election years — wasn’t necessarily due to vote by mail, Hogan observed.

“Turnout’s been anemic and going down,” he said. “Last year there was a tremendous increase … I don’t know if everything being done is going to increase voter participation or just the anger and polarization that’s driving it up.”

His office heard from many voters last year who were angry that they could not vote in person. While that decision was dictated by Gov. Phil Murphy’s COVID-related decree, critics blamed front-line election workers.

“We deal with a lot of anger,” Hogan said.

One factor likely driving increased vote-by-mail interest this year is efforts by civic engagement groups to promote the process.

The non-profit Voter Participation Center and Center for Voter Information mailed out 2.4 million vote-by-mail applications to registered voters in New Jersey for the November election.

Hogan took to Facebook last month to highlight his concerns over those mailings, which he said went out to more than 100,000 county residents. It includes a form already filled in with the voter’s name and a postage-paid envelop addressed to the county clerk’s office.

The clerk received one himself.

“I took a stand on it, only because these interest groups, they’re not doing things properly,” Hogan said, because many of those receiving these have already selected to cast their ballots by mail, so if they mail these new forms it creates additional administrative headaches for the clerk’s office and confuses voters.

He also doesn’t like that it appears the mailing was coming from his office.

Tom Lopach, CEO and president of the Voter Participation Center and Center for Voter Information, says the groups are working to ensure all eligible New Jersey voters can make their voices heard.

“VPC and CVI are bringing democracy to New Jerseyans by providing millions of prospective voters with the same vote-by-mail applications used by their counties,” he said in a statement. “New Jerseyans can easily vote by mail by completing this application and simply dropping it in the mail. As our mailings clearly state, if New Jersey residents already have submitted an application to vote by mail, there is no need to submit another request.

“VPC and CVI are non-profit, non-partisan organizations that work to ensure that the New American Majority — people of color, young people, and unmarried women —participate in democracy at a level equal to their presence in society. In 2020, VPC and CVI helped 4.6 million Americans return vote-by-mail ballot applications nationwide.”

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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