BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Voters in New Jersey’s July 7 primary election will have the opportunity to “cure” mail-in ballots that are rejected by their county.
Following the May all-mail-in election, the state NAACP and the League of Women Voters filed a complaint against New Jersey’s secretary of state, asking that a procedure be established by which voters are notified of the deficiencies in their rejected ballots and then are given an opportunity to “cure” them, to get them counted.
On Tuesday, June 16, an agreement was reached by the parties in the suit establishing a notice-and-cure process for mail-in and provisional ballots for the primary election. The U.S. District Court of New Jersey approved the agreement. It will only pertain to ballots rejected due to signature issues.
In May’s special elections, in which 31 municipalities, including Montclair, held mail-in-only mayor and council elections, one-tenth of ballots submitted were rejected either due to late deliveries or signature problems. The state required that ballots be postmarked by May 12 and received by May 14 to be counted.
“It is unacceptable to deprive people of their franchise to vote, particularly using the unproven method of signature-matching,” Richard T. Smith, president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, said prior to the court’s approval of the agreement. “The rejection of ballots without an opportunity to cure has occurred at the highest rates in New Jersey’s most diverse counties. With this settlement, we will have fixed the problem for the July 7 primary election, a huge step forward. We will now continue our challenge to make these changes permanent.”
In Montclair, 1,101 ballots, or 9 percent of all votes cast, were rejected. Of those rejected, 222 had signature problems, 685 arrived too late to be counted, 108 had certification problems, and the remainder had other problems, according to the Essex County Board of Elections.
As New Jersey continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy announced last month that for the July 7 primary, mail-in ballots will automatically be sent to the state’s active Republican and Democratic voters, and applications for mail-in ballots will be sent to unaffiliated and inactive registered voters.
In addition, a limited number of polling places will be set up for in-person voting, which will largely occur by provisional ballot. This means that almost every vote cast in the primary election will be subject to a signature match.
Murphy also announced that the primary election will allow a seven-day window for ballots postmarked by July 7 to be received by election officials.
While 19 percent of the rejected May election ballots throughout New Jersey were rejected due to late receipt, 26 percent of the rejections were due to signatures not matching.
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 voters to provide a signed statement verifying that they are the one who signed the ballot, along with a copy of identification.
As the agreement applies only to the July 7 primary, the NAACP and League of Women Voters suit will continue pending a resolution.
The lawsuit challenges New Jersey’s signature-match system, in which mail-in and provisional ballots are only counted if election officials — who the suit claims are not properly trained in signature-matching — determine that a voter’s signature on their ballot “matches” the signature on their ballot application or voter registration form.
Under this system, thousands of ballots are rejected each election because of signature or penmanship issues. Currently, New Jersey voters whose ballots are marked as a mismatch are not given a rejection notice or opportunity to cure any errors.
If the agreement is made permanent by the court, it would establish a notice-and-cure process, potentially saving thousands of ballots from improperly going uncounted.
The League of Women Voters of New Jersey and the NAACP New Jersey State Conference were joined in the suit by three individual plaintiffs, including William M. Riggs, a 78-year-old Middlesex County resident whose hand tremors brought on by Parkinson’s disease make it virtually impossible for him to sign his name consistently.
On Saturday, the League of Women Voters of Monmouth County held a Zoom seminar designed to educate voters on the mail-in voting process, part of an effort to protect poll workers, voters, and the process, said League president Peggy Dellinger.
Residents who may need help with voting can go to polling places, but will use provisional ballots. Voters are encouraged to cast their ballots by mail.
HOW TO MAKE SURE YOUR VOTE IS COUNTED
To fill out the mail-in ballot properly, use the specified type of pen or pencil, choose the candidates, and place the ballot in the envelope with the certification flap. Do not tear or damage the flap; fill it out and sign it. If you tear or make a mistake on the certification flap, call the Essex County Board of Elections to request a new one.
Place that envelope in the postage-free envelope and fill out the back of the envelope on the chain of custody on the ballot. Even if a spouse carries the ballot to the mailbox that must be stated on the back.
Due to mail delay and the volume of ballots that will need processing in the primaries, Dellinger suggested getting your ballot mailed as soon as possible.
Voters should be notified if their vote was rejected, but voters can also check the status of their ballot by calling 877-658-6837. Only voters with ballots rejected due to signatures will have the opportunity to fix the problem. Ballots received after July 14 will be rejected.
Voters can also drop off ballots at a special designated box at Montclair’s municipal building, 205 Claremont Ave.