Atlantic and Cape May counties expected to certify results of the July 7 primary election Friday, in the state’s first mostly vote-by-mail election that swamped election offices with paper ballots.

Both counties decided later in the day to wait until Monday because of complications that arose, but Cumberland County was able to certify its results, officials said.

Friday was the deadline for finalizing election counts, but the state is granting extensions given the unusual nature of the election.

Gov. Phil Murphy ordered the primary be moved from June 2 to July 7, and that it be mostly vote-by-mail, to avoid spreading the coronavirus that has killed almost 14,000 New Jerseyans since mid-March.

Atlantic County’s 49,277 ballots are all counted, said Board of Elections Chair Lynn Caterson, and all the write-in votes compiled. Turnout was 25.68%.

She said Atlantic County Clerk Ed McGettigan needed more time “given the large number of write-ins and the new numbers of counted ballots which were the result of cure letters.”

Cure letters were sent to voters whose signatures on their ballots did not match those on file with election officials, or who forgot to sign ballots. There were 615 of those sent in Atlantic County, and 365 returned with proof of signature. Those ballots had to be added to the count.

McGettigan could not be reached for comment, but Assistant County Clerk Mike Sommers said the office was waiting for more information from the Board of Elections.

Cape May County was within 40 votes of making its count official, said Clerk Rita Fulginiti.

She said a clerical issue was yet to be worked out with the number of votes cast versus voided, but the final numbers won’t change any races. The county processed 22,708 ballots for a 31.45% turnout rate.

“Going through this process as election officials — I’ve worked here 35 years and been clerk since 2005, and this election is truly one for the history books,” Fulginiti said.

She said even Superstorm Sandy hitting a week before the general election in 2012 wasn’t as difficult as running a vote-by-mail primary during a pandemic.

“People didn’t know what to expect,” Fulginiti said. “On May 15, we learned it would be primarily vote-by-mail, and we didn’t have enough supplies. It was very costly. I had to scramble to order enough envelopes. We had to get a postage-paid, mail-back envelope — that’s a process through the post office.”

Her office handled 259 different ballot styles and did the mailing in-house.

“Many counties outsource,” Fulginiti said. “We mailed out approximately 50,000 (ballots) when 8,000 would be what we are used to.”

Fulginiti feels strongly November’s general election must give voters a choice of going to the polls or voting by mail, after spending hours on the phone with voters upset they had to vote by mail, or who were confused by the process.

It took boards of election more than two weeks to count the tens of thousands of vote-by-mail and provisional ballots cast in each county.

Luckily there were few close elections in southeastern New Jersey, and its most hotly contested race — the Democratic 2nd Congressional District race — settled itself on primary night. Amy Kennedy’s main opponents conceded soon after the close of polls, and the counts have proved they were right to do so. Kennedy got more than 60% of the vote districtwide, and about 78% in Atlantic County.

“I’m glad it’s over,” said Cumberland County Clerk Celeste Riley, who posted final results Friday afternoon. The county processed 21,787 ballots for a 24.28% turnout rate.

“It was an interesting experience, especially during the period when a lot of employees were out because they had school-age children,” Riley said. “We never shut down, some had to come back in, it was so labor-intensive.”

She said her office could have used more time to prepare for the mailings required but feels she could handle another mostly vote-by-mail general election in November.

“For this particular one, sending out applications (to register as a party member) to unaffiliated voters killed most of us,” Riley said. “We were inundated by applications.”

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University in Glassboro, said the primary went more smoothly than many feared it would.

“There didn’t seem to be as many egregious problems as we saw in previous municipal elections,” Dworkin said, referring particularly to Paterson’s May election, after which the state attorney general filed fraud charges. “That’s a tribute to the county clerks and boards of elections.”

The state does need to learn lessons from this election, Dworkin said.

“Perhaps the biggest one is timing. Clerks need to know by August — in a couple of weeks — what we’re doing for November,” Dworkin said.

He expects Gov. Phil Murphy to order another mostly vote-by-mail election.

“I think there has to be an expanded version of what we saw in July,” Dworkin said. “The public confidence in waiting on lines is not there.”

Ballots must be printed for the general election by Sept. 14 this year, under state law.

Dworkin also said there needs to be a lot more voter education efforts in the future.

“The electorate needs to be informed about how the election is being run, which voting locations are open, who is eligible to show up there,” Dworkin said. “There was very, very little public education on behalf of the state relating to this election.”

What worked well, all agreed, were drop boxes for getting filled-out ballots to the boards of elections.

“I like the idea of ballot boxes the state provided. We’re going to have to have more,” Riley said. “The states that have all vote-by-mail have them everywhere.”

“All the concerns about waiting for the post office to deliver them ... all those concerns are bypassed when you have drop boxes conveniently located, safe and secure,” Dworkin said.

Contact: 609-272-7219

mpost@pressofac.com

Twitter @MichelleBPost

Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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