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How mail-in ballots are expected to affect this year's elections

How mail-in ballots are expected to affect this year's elections

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Changes in state law have created a flood of vote-by-mail ballots, but many people who receive them are expected to show up to vote at the polls anyway. They will have to fill out paper provisional ballots, officials said, and need to fill out opt-out forms if they don't want to receive mail-in ballots in the future.

Pundits are predicting low turnout for Tuesday’s election in New Jersey, based on the Assembly being at the top of the ticket, except in the 1st Legislative District, and a lack of familiarity with issues and candidates found in polls.

But that doesn’t mean it will be a simple election to process, officials said.

“We are already up to 8,300 mail-in ballots received,” Atlantic County Board of Elections Chairwoman Lynn Caterson said Friday, of the 19,400 mailed out to voters by the Atlantic County Clerk’s Office.

The last time the Assembly was at the top of the ticket in 2015, 4,532 mail-in ballots were cast in Atlantic County.

So even if turnout at the polls is similar to the 30% countywide in 2015, there are already twice the number of paper ballots to process, count, investigate and make a decision on than there was in 2015.

That’s the result of a new state law, passed in late August, requiring that mail-in ballots be sent to everyone who requested one from 2016 through 2018, Atlantic County Clerk Ed McGettigan said.

And they are still coming in.

“Historically we get people (coming in to request mail-ins) right up to Monday afternoon,” McGettigan said.

Vote-by mail-applications can be made up to 3 p.m. Monday, and as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, they will be counted if they arrive at the Board of Elections within 48 hours of the close of polls.

“We have hired more staff — about doubled it,” Caterson said. And they are working longer hours, to get the returned ballots credited to the correct voter. The mail-ins won’t be opened and counting won’t start till after midnight Election Day, she said. In close elections, results will be significantly delayed, she said, as each ballot has to be opened, examined and tallied by one Republican and one Democrat.

If anyone challenges a ballot’s signature or other factors, an investigation must be done that takes more time.

Montclair State University Professor of Political Science and Law Brigid Harrison said the 2015 election set a record low for turnout, with only 22% of registered voters statewide casting ballots. She doesn’t expect this year’s turnout to be that low.

“If you’ll recall that year ... it was while Chris Christie was still entertaining a presidential run. There was an enormous amount of political fatigue in New Jersey,” Harrison said.

The changes in state law regarding mail-in ballots will also increase voting, she said.

“I have a 25-year-old daughter who registered to vote by mail in college (in 2016),” Harrison said. “She has already voted by mail. I’m not sure she would have gone out to vote in an Assembly election.”

In Cape May County, the numbers of mail-ins are also large. Clerk Rita Fulginiti said her office has sent out 8,586 mail-in ballots this year, and by Friday had received back 4,869. That’s compared with 2,556 received in 2015.

“Of course because of the change in the (state) law, many more people are getting mail-in ballots,” said Fulginiti. “We are prepared for folks to come to the polls and be given a provisional ballot if they had been issued a mail-in.”

Even if a voter hasn’t returned the mail-in ballot, the fact they received one makes them ineligible to vote by machine. They must fill out a paper provisional ballot, which is time-consuming to process.

Fulginiti said the county is encouraging people who received a mail-in to use it this election, even if they prefer to vote in person. They can fill out an opt-out form to not receive them in the future. The forms can be downloaded online, or filled out at the clerk’s office.

“But if they come to the polls, they will be given a provisional and they can opt out at the polls,” Fulginiti said. “It’s a little chaotic, but we’ll get it done.”

The new law passed so late, there wasn’t enough time to educate voters and give them time to fill out opt-out forms before the automatic mail-in ballots had to be sent, Fulginiti said.

Her office has not hired more staff to handle the extra mail-ins, she said, but has cross-trained other staff to help temporarily.

Meanwhile, the top four Atlantic County towns requesting mail-in ballots are Atlantic City, Egg Harbor Township, Galloway Township and Pleasantville, said Deputy Clerk Michael Somers.

After the polls close at 8 p.m. there will be an hour and a half of intense work tabulating machine results, Somers said. He anticipates the results will be up on the county clerk’s website at by 9:30 p.m.

Contact: 609-272-7219

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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