New Jersey voters are marking ballots for the Nov. 3 election now in the comfort of their homes.
Under the state's new "vote-by-mail" law, registered voters can request a mail-in ballot for next month's gubernatorial election - and for November elections in years to come, if they choose.
Getting to a polling place "can be a nightmare in terms of emergencies or commuting," Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells said yesterday at a Camden voter-registration drive. "This way you're reassured that no matter what comes up, you can vote."
Since 2005, New Jersey had permitted anyone to vote early by absentee ballot without providing a reason - such as illness or travel - as required in Pennsylvania.
New Jersey's vote-by-mail law, passed in the spring, went a step further, giving voters the option to apply for ballots for both current and future elections.
By eliminating the word absentee, New Jersey also hopes to end confusion about how voting by mail works, Mitchell Wells said.
"We want to let people know how easy it is," she said.
Paul Stanch, 66, of Haddonfield, filled out an application for a ballot yesterday at the Walter Rand Transportation Center in Camden, so "I won't have to take a bus to vote."
Carol Sergeiko of Mullica Hill doesn't drive, either. She grabbed a stack of applications from the state's display for neighbors in her apartment complex and planned to spread the word.
Voters return applications to their county clerks, who send out county-specific ballots. To prevent fraud, signatures are verified on the application and the actual ballot, said Robert Giles, director of the state Division of Elections.
"The safeguards are the same as in the polling place," Giles said.
Ballots have been available since late September, state officials said, but mail-in votes won't be counted until the morning of Election Day - by hand or electronic scanner, depending on the county.
Because there is a paper trail, voting by mail is more secure, in some ways, than voting by machine, state Public Advocate Ron Chen said. The new law restricts who can transport completed ballots and how the transporting can be done, which has been an issue in the past with absentee ballots.
Vote-by-mail - which will be available for all New Jersey elections - has been successful in Western states, where more than 50 percent of ballots are cast in advance, said Paul Gronke, a political-science professor at Reed College in Oregon.
In 1998, voters decided all Oregon elections would be entirely conducted by mail. In Washington, all but one county have eliminated polling places.
In the Northeast, Maine is the only other state to grant what it calls absentee ballots without a special reason. And New Jersey is the sole state east of the Mississippi River to allow permanent mail-in voting, according Christian Smith-Socaris, an election specialist at the Progressive States Network, a public-policy think tank in New York City.
For candidates, more mail-ins requires strategy adjustments, say state party leaders, as some voters cast their ballots long before the last gubernatorial debate, while end-of-the-race polls narrow and television ads intensify.
"When we talk about our 72-hour get-out-the-vote window, it's now a 30-day window," said Kevin Roberts, communications director for the state Republican Party.
Using public records, party volunteers will call and go door-to-door to make sure voters who applied for mail-in ballots actually send them back, said Roberts, who worked on campaigns in California, where 40 percent of voters use mail-in ballots.
"Anything you can do to make it easier for people to cast their vote, we look at as a positive thing," he said.
The state Democratic Party has embraced vote-by-mail with a promotional video starring U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, state Senate President Richard J. Codey, and former Gov. Jim Florio. Smiling citizens chanting "it's easy" urge voters to give mail-in a try.
The party has its own "vote at home" Web site to sign people up while not so subtly reminding them to choose Democratic candidates.
"From what we've seen, both campaigns have been very respectful of the process," Giles said.
Regardless of where voters obtain a vote-by-mail application, they can receive a ballot only from a county clerk, he said.
Election officials expect mail-in convenience to drive up voter participation. In last year's presidential election, 88 percent of the state's 285,000 absentee-ballot applicants followed through and voted, Giles said.
"It might not have too much of an effect in a presidential or gubernatorial race, but in a close school-board election, it's certainly my hope it could increase turnout," Chen said.
Chen's department identified 66 local elections last year in which the margin of victory was less than 1 percent. Three were in Camden County, two in Gloucester County, and one in Burlington County.
So far, 9,000 voters in Camden County have applied to vote by mail, almost twice the number in previous gubernatorial elections, said Phyllis Pearl, county superintendent of elections. In Gloucester County, about 5,000 applications are in. Burlington County did not reply to a request for information.
Voters can apply by mail for a ballot until Oct. 27, or in person at the county clerk's office until 3 p.m. Nov. 2. Ballots must be returned by the close of polls Nov. 3.
"People see it as a convenience," Pearl said. "A lot of senior citizens like socializing at the polls. Other people are just too busy."
At the Rand Center yesterday, NJ Transit worker Cissy Davis of Pennsauken applied to get a Camden County vote-by-mail ballot "just in case."
"I'm lazy sometimes," she said, smiling.
Applications for county-specific ballots are available to registered voters at www.njelections.org and in county and state offices.
The deadline to apply is Oct. 27 by mail and Nov. 2 at 3 p.m. in person at a county clerk's office. Applications may not be faxed or e-mailed.
The deadline to return a completed ballot is the close of polls Nov. 3.
Information: 877-658-6837 or www.njelections.org. EndText