Editor’s Note: This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy. By Colleen O’Dea, SENIOR WRITER, NJ Spotlight. Colleen O’Dea has spent her entire career reporting New Jersey news and won numerous state and national journalism awards and fellowships. She joined NJ Spotlight News in 2011 and now serves as its data reporter, as well as covering general assignment topics that include elections, politics, criminal justice, social issues, and affordable housing.
With the early mail-in ballot tally approaching the total number of votes in the 2016 presidential election, no one was sure how many people might come out to vote in person on Tuesday.
But voters did come out. And in some cases, the New Jersey voters who chose not to mail in their votes faced problems at the polls on Election Day, from locations that did not open on time to poll workers providing incorrect guidance.
The delayed opening of at least three polling locations in Newark led to long lines and reports of at least some people leaving without voting because they had to go to work, according to tips from ProPublica’s Electionland project, of which NJ Spotlight News is a member. Voters also reported delayed openings at polling locations in Trenton, New Brunswick, and Paterson.
Henal Patel, director of democracy and justice at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said the “most egregious” problems reported to the election protection coalition of legal and advocacy groups were the delayed openings of polls in Newark, which also had only two drop boxes in the center of the city where voters could deposit mail-in ballots early despite having the largest number of registrants in the state.
“This is a major issue; it’s unacceptable,” she said. “I don’t think we have a clear reason for what happened. We heard some reports that the county did not have printed ballots.”
Essex County Board of Elections Clerk Linda Von Nessi did not respond to a request for comment.
While 3.75 million people in New Jersey had submitted mail-in ballots as of 4 p.m. Tuesday, it was clear that thousands more decided to vote in person, using paper provisional ballots.
Problems at some polls
There were reports that no signs were visible to indicate that typical polling locations were closed or to clearly say where to vote at open sites. At Rafael Hernandez Elementary School in Newark, one of the polling places where voters lined up around the block Tuesday morning due to the delayed opening, a handwritten sign on one door said voting would occur in the gymnasium but there were no signs directing voters to that location, which was around the block, through a chain-link fence and partially hidden by a dumpster.
“Where is the sign?” asked Julia Cabrera, a Newark resident who chose to vote in-person to ensure her vote would count. “They’re just making it difficult for minorities because they know our votes count.”
Reports claimed disabled voters were unable to use a machine to vote and others that said poll workers were providing incorrect information — in one case, telling a woman who had brought her husband’s mail-in ballot to a polling place to sign in for him and in another of a woman being told to take a provisional ballot and drop it in the mail because the polling place would not be opening.
“We are seeing issues of poll workers giving out incorrect information, which creates confusion,” Patel said. “We seem to be getting more of this than we usually do.”
The process of a mostly mail-in ballot election for New Jersey had already been confusing for those who chose to vote early, with many unsure about how to fill out the ballots and others distrustful of using mail-in ballots based on statements made by President Donald Trump and some New Jersey Republican leaders.
Because all active registered voters received a mail-in ballot and most people were expected to vote early that way, counties consolidated polling locations — at least half the typical sites had to be open. While counties were to have sent voters a mailer listing their in-person voting place, people were also being encouraged to use the state’s polling place locator to find their voting spot. But that, and the state’s ballot tracker, were both down for a time late Tuesday morning, though they were back up by early afternoon.
Alicia D’Allesandro, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Elections, said that some voters may have found the state tracking site slow because of volume, but stressed that county offices were having “no issues” downloading votes to the state system.
“Nothing at this point is slowing the vote,” she said.
Complaints of electioneering violations
A number of voters also complained of violations of state law on electioneering, specifically the rule that no one can advocate for a candidate within 100 feet of a polling location. There is no legal bar to electioneering at a dropbox, only at polling locations.
Gov. Phil Murphy had said Monday that state officials were ready for any potential acts of mischief or intimidation at the polls and would not tolerate any actions like the pro-Trump caravan of vehicles that blocked traffic on the Garden State Parkway on Sunday.
“I believe we’re going to have a safe and successful day, but we’re gonna take nothing for granted,” he said. “And I would just say to folks, any amount of intimidation is categorically, flat out, one hundred percent, black-and-white illegal. And that will be enforced strenuously.”
The number of New Jerseyans who wind up voting on Election Day may not be known for some time since officials will not start counting provisional ballots until after all mail-in votes are tallied.
Because of the election schedule, the counting of ballots will continue for another two weeks or longer and none of the election night results will be certain for a while.
Most congressional races probably will be called
That won’t stop most of the congressional races from being called, as one party or the other has a substantial voter registration majority in most districts. But the closest races, expected to be Republican Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s 2nd District seat, Democratic Rep. Andy Kim’s 3rd District seat, and Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski 7th District seat, could well remain undecided until all provisional ballots cast in person at the polls on Tuesday are counted. The results of the election won’t be certified until Nov. 20.
“There will be a lot of pressure on the county clerks to get the vote count right,” said Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University. “That could take time … But I think overall New Jersey seems to be in better shape than most places.”
During a virtual rally last night, Democrats warned patience would be needed, as the count would take more than a week.
Some Republican strategists said more GOP voters than Democrats are likely to vote in person and because of the delay in counting provisional ballots, close races with mail-in-only results that appear to favor Democrats could swing red once provisional ballots are counted. If that happens, it would be the opposite of a national trend called the “blue shift” in which later ballot counts tend to favor Democrats because they tend to cast more provisional ballots that are tallied later.
A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll last month found Republicans more likely to distrust mail-in balloting. According to the poll, three-quarters of Republicans said mail-in voting is susceptible to fraud, while almost the same number of Democrats trust the safety and security of ballots cast by mail.
With every active registered voter in New Jersey automatically sent a mail-in ballot to minimize the spread of COVID-19, the pre-Election Day turnout was substantial: The number of ballots cast as of noon on Nov. 2 had reached 90% of the 2016 presidential turnout of 3.98 million people, which represented 68% of those registered. Gov. Phil Murphy was predicting the state’s rate would exceed that this year.
Republican resistance to election changes
Republicans initially resisted the change. Many called for Murphy to allow for machine voting at polling places. The state Republican Party joined with the Trump campaign in a suit challenging the change — originally put in place as an executive order, then ultimately voted by lawmakers — in federal court, but a judge dismissed the suit. Some GOP leaders included Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick of Union County, falsely stated that polling places would not be open. Ultimately the state Republican Party and candidates sent out mailers calling mail-in balloting safe and urging voters to place their votes in one of the 329 drop boxes placed around the state.
Akin to the national trend, Democrats initially returned ballots at greater rates than Republicans, but that changed over the last weekend. An NJ Spotlight News analysis of mail-in balloting through Nov. 1 found that 66.2% of Republicans who got a ballot had returned it, compared with 64.1% of Democrats. But Democrats dominate both Republicans and unaffiliated voters in the state and 43.6% of all ballots submitted were from Democrats, compared to 25.9% from Republicans.
The change, enacted by Murphy at the end of August, left county officials scrambling to get 6 million ballots printed and mailed, drop boxes with cameras installed, large open spaces to process and scan ballots while still socially distancing, and armies of temporary staff hired to deal with the tight timeline to completely transform the way they have conducted balloting for decades.
Mail-in ballots take much longer to count than machine tallies, but with a federal election deadline looming due to the presidential election the law Democrats passed and Murphy signed allowed counties to begin scanning ballots into counting machines 10 days before Election Day. That has enabled many counties to keep up with the steady stream of ballots, with the help of extra workers; Bergen County, for instance, has brought on about 100 temporary staff to help with the work. Other counties, including Camden, have been relying on workers loaned from other county departments and the National Guard to assist them.
Rich Ambrosino, a member of the Camden Board of Elections, said that as of last Friday, seven days into the early counting, Camden County had only opened and processed “a little over half” of nearly 200,000 ballots it had received. Once the ballots were out and flattened, the county had seven high-speed counters that would work quickly.
‘Laborious’ counting of ballots
Board of elections members has been working overtime, as a majority of members in each county is required to oversee ballot processing and scanning, and the boards — split evenly between Democrats and Republicans — have also been meeting four times a week to consider whether to question ballots due to a signature mismatch or other issues.
Eileen Kean, a board member in Monmouth County, said the work has been “laborious” but all the early votes should mean relatively few people showing up in person at polling locations.
“The publicity about this was so good that people know they will not be able to vote on a machine” and decided to vote early using a mail-in ballot, she said.
But this being New Jersey’s first statewide mail-in ballot election, it has been fraught with glitches and voter confusion. As a member of Pro Publica’s Electionland project, NJ Spotlight News has received dozens of tips from voters, ranging from people who never got a mail-in ballot despite trying repeatedly to those who received duplicate ballots or ballots for people who had not lived at their address for many years.
Still, Murphy said Monday that he thinks the election process has worked well overall and that the early counting will provide a good picture of what the ultimate results will be.
“I believe we will know a fair amount” on election night, he said.
No mystery in some races
Democrat Joe Biden is well ahead in the polls in New Jersey and expected to win the state’s presidential contest easily. Similarly, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, finishing his first full term, is expected to beat Republican Rikin Mehta, who had raised less than $600,000 through Oct. 14, not quite 5% of Booker’s $14.4 million campaign account.
Nationally, though, it is unclear when the race for president and control of Congress will be known, given that states are conducting their elections according to different rules, including whether voting in person or by mail, when votes would begin to be counted and how long the counting can last.
In an email message Monday, Audrey Kline, national policy director of the National Vote at Home Institute, said Americans need to understand that, despite assertions that Trump has made, there is nothing nefarious about a vote count that continues beyond Election Day.
“Regardless of whether we have fast or slow results on election night, neither one is an indication of fraud,” she said.
— John Mooney and Jeff Pillets contributed to this story.