BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclair could be a testing ground for maintaining the democratic process when voters can’t leave their homes to head to the polls during an election. Following the township’s all-vote-by-mail municipal election last week, some are now calling for reforms or challenging mail-in ballot procedures.
While historically only about 10 percent of New Jerseyans vote by mail, during the May elections they had no choice but to vote by mail under Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive orders caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
One mayoral candidate wants late-arriving ballots to be counted and might call for a recount of the votes that were rejected, while the New Jersey NAACP and League of Women Voters have filed a complaint against New Jersey’s secretary of state asking that a procedure be established by which voters are notified of deficiencies in their ballots and then given an opportunity to “cure” their ballots to get them counted.
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“New Jersey’s signature match policies are seriously flawed. Currently, when a signature on a mail-in ballot is flagged as a mismatch, a voter’s ballot is rejected without any opportunity to remedy the issue. New Jersey’s failure to provide vote-by-mail voters with clear and prompt notice of, and an opportunity to cure, signature related issues is unconstitutional.
Millions of New Jersey voters will receive vote-by-mail ballots ahead of the primary and we must make sure every eligible vote counts,” said Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters.
Mayoral candidate Renee Baskerville, who lost the election by 195 votes, contends that more than 400 ballots were rejected in Montclair’s election. Linda VonNessi, clerk to the Essex County Board of Elections, said that 219 ballots were rejected due to signatures.
When voters return an absentee ballot, they must sign an affidavit on the ballot envelope.
According to New Jersey’s law on ballot certification, election officials compare the signature on the mail-in ballot request with the person’s voter registration record on the paper form or the digitized images of the voter’s signature stored in the statewide voter registration system.
If it is determined that the signatures don’t match up, the clerk marks “disapproved” on the application and notifies the applicant, stating the reason.
Similarly, mail-in voters sign a certificate on the ballot envelope. Signatures on the envelope are compared with the signature and information contained in the request for the mail-in ballot. Signatures that do not match are rejected.
Eleven states require all returned ballots be notarized.
Sixteen states currently have laws allowing voters to cure signatures that are rejected. New Jersey does not.
In states that allow for verification, the voter is contacted, the problem is explained, and the voter is asked to verify the information. Most states allow for both in-person verification or a way for the voter to provide a signed statement verifying that they are actually the one who signed the ballot, along with a copy of identification.
If the voter fails to respond, the ballot isn’t counted.
The complaint filed by the NAACP and the League states that New Jersey’s failure to provide mail-in voters with prompt notice of, and an opportunity to cure, signature-related issues is unconstitutional.
“The State of New Jersey guarantees every voter the right to cast their ballot by mail. But each election, thousands of mail-in voters are effectively disenfranchised when the State rejects their mail-in ballots because of inadvertent signature-related errors or matters of penmanship. The State gives the voter no opportunity to remedy the perceived impairment so that their vote may be counted,” it reads.
Also a plaintiff in the complaint is William M. Riggs, a 78-year-old Middlesex County resident who intends to vote by mail in all future elections. Riggs has Parkinson’s disease, a progressive nervous system disorder that affects his movement and ultimately his signature.
“As such, he reasonably believes that there is a substantial risk that his signature will be erroneously deemed inauthentic if compared to an earlier exemplar of his signature,” the complaint reads.
In the Montclair election, ballots had to be postmarked by May 12 and received by the county clerk two days later, by the evening of May 14, as determined by New Jersey’s 48-hour law, said Durkin.
Baskerville is challenging the 48-hour window.
“During this coronavirus pandemic that caused decreased post office hours and personnel shortages at the Montclair Post Office, we have to make sure that every ballot that should be counted is counted,” she said abouting pushing for review of all outstanding ballots that were postmarked May 12.
VonNessi said on Wednesday, May 20, the number of ballots that were received after May 14 were 56, but more could be coming in.
Montclair League President Elizabeth Milner said: “We strongly believe that there should have been a longer mail-in time for the municipal elections. We also are concerned about the rejection of ballots due to penmanship errors, without contacting the voter and giving them a chance to correct the error. Especially in close elections, like our mayoral one.”
In preparation for a mostly all-mail-in statewide primary July 7, Murphy signed an executive order last week allowing for the primary to be conducted by mail and to allow a seven-day window, stating that all ballots received up until July 14 would be counted.
Even with the concerns over mail-in ballots, a poll from the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, finds that four out of five Americans believe states should give all voters the option of mail ballots during the November election. The poll was conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group between March 22-24.