Pennsylvania election officials recently found out what their counterparts in New Jersey will likely discover: Tallying an unprecedented volume of mail-in ballots is no small task. Spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, the two states and many others are promoting or expanding the vote-by-mail option. The goal is not to eliminate in-person voting, but to enable people who want to avoid lines and crowds at polling places to mark their ballots and have them count.
Sadly, several thousand voters who used the option in Pennsylvania’s June 2 primary ended up disenfranchised for reasons that included missing the return deadline for completed ballots. The July 7 primary will be New Jersey’s first statewide election conducted mostly by mail, although school board, municipal, and special elections in May were solely by mail due to the shutdown and stay-at-home orders. Nearly 10% of all ballots in those contests were rejected because of difficulties with signature verification or other issues.
The job of protecting the rights of voters and the integrity of elections is overseen by the states and administered mostly by county or local election officials and personnel. New Jersey reached an agreement Tuesday with the League of Women Voters and the NAACP to offer primary voters whose signatures on mailed-in ballots are challenged by their local election boards the opportunity to remedy discrepancies. And in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf supports a proposed legislative fix that would enable counties to begin processing early mailed-in ballots weeks before election day.
Five states, including Oregon, Utah, and Colorado, conduct elections almost exclusively by mail and have done so for years. But in this presidential election — and pandemic — year, a lot is being asked of election officials and voters in states that, until recently, have not much utilized the option. The shift from polling places to mailboxes or ballot drop boxes is an institutional and cultural change that risks alienating some voters and could depress turnout.
So voter education is key. The Wolf administration promoted voting by mail through its digital platforms, including social media, radio, and TV, using about $1 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money. It plans to expand the campaign in advance of the November election. This week, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy appeared in a video for his YouTube channel to demonstrate the relative ease of voting by mail; his “Vote. Sign. Seal. Return” campaign also will include social media platforms and radio spots. Officials in both states say additional federal help is needed so their counties can better prepare for the high turnouts expected in November.
Public confidence in elections has been battered in recent decades, and President Donald Trump’s baseless characterization of voting by mail (which he has done) as a partisan ploy that fosters fraud hasn’t helped. Primary day debacles in Wisconsin, and most recently, in Georgia, haven’t helped either.
But most voters see casting a ballot — in person or by mail — as a cherished right, a duty that requires serious thought and preparation. Amid the public health fears and ferocious politics of this election year, states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey must be prepared to do their duty as well.