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NJ-TV: How increased demand for vote-by-mail ballots could influence the Assembly election

By Briana Vannozzi, Correspondent of NJ-TV | October 31, 2019, 5PM EST

The unprecedented increase in requests for vote-by-mail ballots could have a major influence on this year’s Assembly election outcome, especially in areas like Somerset and Union County – the battlegrounds for the state’s only competitive races.

According to the state Division of Elections, there were 596,993 vote-by-mail ballots requested as of Thursday. NJTV News has obtained data showing 275,429 of those went to Democrats, 149,540 to Republicans and another 169,247 for unaffiliated voters, not including third parties.

“We are up to 30​,000 vote-by-mails that we sent out. Which is a very high number for us. I think in the highest presidential activity, we did 16,000,” said Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi.

Rajoppi’s office has been pilot-testing the state’s first “ballot-on-demand” technology to keep up with requests. The machine custom prints ballots on the spot for voters, using their name and district.

The uptick in interest likely stems from a bill that Gov. Murphy signed into law back in August, providing automatic vote-by-mail enrollment for anyone who used it during the last three election years, unless they opt out. If all goes smoothly, county clerks say it should cut down on the burden it created.

“I have 66 different ballot formats and pick from one of them to get your exact ballot, check it to make sure it’s the right ballot and then give it to you,” said Rajoppi. She went on to call the process “time consuming, labor intensive and very costly.”

“It was at least $3 million to implement the most recent three elections,” said ​executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties, John Donnadio. “That doesn’t include the special elections, the fire district elections and municipal elections, and it doesn’t include all of the costs moving forward.”

After Murphy put the $2 million set aside by the legislature in his so-called lock box during the budget, Donnadio filed a case with the state Council on Local Mandates over the cost. While the case is still pending, the counties are feeling the pinch.

“The last time the legislature was top of the ticket, we had about 57,000​ ballots cast county wide, and we’ve mailed out 29,000 vote-by-mail ballots,” said Somerset County Clerk Steve Peter.

The number of vote-by-mail ballots skyrocketed between the 2017 and 2018 general elections, when the law originally went to into effect, up from 182,744 to 400,136 residents.

“There’s no question that the automatic vote-by-mail ballot measure that we have now … is benefiting the Democrats and that’s because the Democrats saw this coming, worked with the governor to get this done and were preparing for it in a way that Republicans were not,” said Patrick Murray of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Democrats say the effort expands the process to more residents, despite their nearly one million voter edge over Republicans in the state. Even for a low turnout year, the vote-by-mail numbers are expected to reach new heights.

Residents planning to vote by mail have until 3 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 4 to come in person, fill out an application and receive a ballot. ​The deadline to submit it in person is 8 p.m. on election night. Ballots postmarked by Election Day will still be accepted up to 48 hours after.