This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.
Click here for the original article published on March 20, 2020, written by Colleen O’Dea.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy yesterday postponed upcoming local and school board elections until May 12 and ordered that all elections on that date be conducted completely by mail-in balloting to help stem the spread of COVID-19.
The only change Murphy ordered so far affecting the June primary is allowing candidates to file their nominating petitions online, but he didn’t rule out the possibility of having that election conducted by mail statewide if necessary.
“We have no timetable to make any assessment on the June 2 election, but obviously it’s at the top of mind,” Murphy said during his daily briefing on the pandemic. “If we need to act and adjust that in any way, we will do so on a timely basis.”
Murphy’s latest executive order comes at a time when some groups have been urging him to take steps to protect the electorate and encourage people to vote, as many county political committees have been cancelling nominating conventions and other in-person events and moved to conduct business remotely. For instance, the Democratic Committee of Bergen County changed March 12’s convention into a virtual meeting, with committee members voting for endorsements online. The county’s Republicans announced Wednesday they were also cancelling their convention, saying only, “We are awaiting additional information that will determine next steps.”
The New Jersey Democratic State Committee (NJDSC) said Thursday it is waiving the signature requirement for presidential campaign delegate candidates and advising county parties with committee elections scheduled for June to extend their members’ terms to 2021. Both actions will reduce the need for hundreds of individuals to go door-to-door or otherwise approach people to get the signatures needed to appear on June ballots.
“We all need to do our part to encourage social distancing and slow the spread of the Coronavirus, and these two common sense actions are being made to limit the need for canvassing and other personal contact by campaigns in the coming months,” said NJDSC chairman John Currie in announcing the decision in a statement.
The New Jersey Republican State Committee did not return a request for comment Thursday on its plans.
Voting changes affect 34 elections
The voting changes Murphy announced will impact 34 separate elections in municipalities with close to 730,000 registered voters. It delays the special fire election in Old Bridge and special municipal elections in Atlantic City and West Amwell scheduled for this month, as well as the annual school board elections scheduled for April 21 in 14 communities — including the state’s largest, Newark — until May 12. That’s the date of the annual nonpartisan municipal elections, held in 17 communities in seven counties across the state. All those will be held May 12 completely using vote-by-mail balloting, with voters receiving a postage-paid envelope in which to return their ballots.
“There is no greater right in a democracy than the right to vote … Given the current emergency, we want to make sure everyone is safe in voting,” Murphy said during the briefing.
But the governor punted the question of whether the state would be picking up the tab for these changes to Secretary of State Tahesha Way, who said her office is exploring whether it can use federal Help America Vote Act funding, meant to assist states in modernizing their voting equipment and systems, and to reimburse counties for any increased costs.
“Our office is diligently exploring the utilization of perhaps our federal funds,” she said. “I could also note that by moving to vote by mail only, there are some cost savings … because there won’t be any cost for, let’s say, two things: polling places and also the poll workers.”
Still, the impacted counties would have to print and mail additional mail-in ballots. (The New Jersey Association of Counties has estimated the cost of each mail-in ballot at $2.42, not including return postage.) Additionally, they would likely need to hire more staff to scan or count all the additional ballots.
‘Battling out the cost’
“There is really not a cost savings,” said Mary Melfi, the Hunterdon County clerk and legislative liaison for the Constitutional Officers Association of New Jersey. “There are going to be some complications, some hurdles. It can be done … We are just going to have to battle out the cost.”
The state has already been chided for not compensating counties for the added cost of expanded vote-by-mail laws signed in 2018 and 2019. Last November, the Council on Local Mandates agreed with a New Jersey Association of Counties complaint that because the state had failed to provide county funding for two changes in the vote-by-mail, or VBM, laws, they were “unfunded mandates” and no longer mandatory. The Legislature since added, and Murphy agreed to, funding to reinstate the VBM laws, though not the change he ordered Thursday.
Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, commended Murphy’s decision to conduct the May 12 election entirely using VBMs. He was one of a number of signatories to a letter sent Wednesday to Murphy and the leaders of both houses of the Legislature urging the mailing of mail-in ballots with return postage to all registered voters.
“We appreciate the leadership Gov. Murphy has shown in responding nimbly to the current health crisis in order to make voting more accessible for New Jersey residents during these unsettling times,” Haygood said. “While our communities are being advised to avoid being around groups of people, having the ability to vote without showing up at a polling place, and not placing an additional economic burden on people, are crucial.”
Online forms, signatures
To comply with Murphy’s other major order, the state Division of Elections posted on its website late Thursday afternoon links to a number of forms that candidates for the June primary can have filled out electronically. To appear on the ballot, candidates must fill out a form, an oath of allegiance and get a number of signatures on nominating petitions, with the number dependent on the position sought.
Any candidates who have already gotten signatures on paper can submit these. Those who have not can now use the online forms for president, delegates to the national parties’ committees, U.S. Senate, all 12 House of Representatives seats, and state Senate and Assembly seats in the 25th Legislative District in Morris County. There is also a process for filing for county offices.
“No one should be out gathering signatures, physically; we want to see all signature collection moving to the online platforms,” Murphy said.
Melfi said, though, that the change has “in essence thrown out the whole integrity of the petition process.” A candidate by law can challenge the signatures gathered by another candidate and at times, these challenges have knocked a prospective candidate off the ballot. But with people filling out forms online in support of a candidate, Melfi said there is no actual signature to challenge and compare to the voter’s signature on file.
Neither the number of signatures needed per office, nor the filing deadline of 4 p.m., March 30 has changed. While the Assembly had passed a bill that would have extended the deadline and relaxed the signature requirements, the Senate did not vote on that measure during its session Thursday to approve a host of COVID-19 relief bills.
Several of New Jersey’s congressional seats are expected to be hotly contested, but many candidates are being mindful of the virus and curtailing the usually public events and rallies. For instance, incumbents have been holding virtual town halls instead of live events.
Arati Kreibich, the Democrat challenging Rep. Josh Gottheimer in the 5th District, announced she is encouraging staff to work from home and cancelling all events that would have held more than 10 people.
And the grassroots group NJ-08 For Progress changed a Tuesday night candidate forum to a virtual forum, with Democratic challenger Hector Oseguera answering questions. Rep. Albio Sires did not participate.
School board, municipal elections May 12
In addition to the three special municipal elections, the school board elections moved to May 12 are in Cliffside Park, Fairview, Garfield, Hackensack, Oakland, Ridgewood, Irvington, Newark, North Bergen, Weehawken, West New York, New Brunswick, Passaic City and Totowa.
The nonpartisan municipal elections already scheduled for that date are in Ventnor, Ridgefield Park, Ridgewood, Teaneck, Bass River, Medford Lakes, Ocean City, Belleville, Orange, Irvington, Montclair, Nutley, Allenhurst, Deal, Keansburg, Loch Arbor and Paterson.