Vote By Mail ballots need ‘immediate attention’

The new Vote By Mail law enacted this year in New Jersey required ballots be sent to whoever voted by mail two years ago, regardless if they moved, died or did not request a mail-in ballot this year, unless the voter mailed a request to the county clerk requesting they not receive a mail-in ballot.

Middlesex County had more mail-in ballot returns than any county in the state: more than 39,000. The way the mail-in ballots were counted in Middlesex County was flawed to say the least, and calls for immediate attention.

On Election Day, I spent numerous hours observing the count of mail-in ballots at the Middlesex County Board of Elections. To protect the integrity of the vote tabulation process and to avoid the possibility of voter fraud that could affect election outcomes regardless of party affiliation, I feel I must publicly express concerns regarding some things I observed. 

I would not expect the final numbers of the mail-in and provisional ballots to affect candidates at the top of the ticket. However, there is certainly the possibility the final numbers could affect the outcome of municipal or board of education elections.

The mail-in process was further complicated before Election Day, when mail-in ballots were sent from the Middlesex County clerk, with duplicate addresses and/or to places where the intended voter no longer lived. This led to a record number of provisional ballots being cast. The mailing house should have been given better, more up-to-date information.

Provisional ballot counts should have been finalized on Nov. 19, almost two weeks after the election; consequently, a number of towns could not learn which candidate won for two weeks.

On Election Day the process got worse. Every step in processing and tabulating mail-in and provisional ballots should be performed in the presence of a worker from both parties, including reviewing accuracy and completion of information on the mail-in envelope prior to opening, reviewing the ballot for same, remarking ballots to assure the counting machine will be able to read the voter’s intent, setting aside ballots for the board to determine validity of the ballot, etc.

Major concerns I witnessed in the counting of mail-in ballots follow, along with questions I request be answered and records supplied.

As the commissioners were meeting to review questionable ballots, the question was raised as to why county employees were brought in at 6 a.m. to start opening the ballots and Republicans were told to be at the Board of Elections at 7 a.m. Consequently, for one hour, ballot opening and perhaps some validity decisions regarding envelopes, at a minimum, were being made in most cases solely by Democrat county workers. No satisfactory response was given by the board to this question.

Although there were Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated people at each table, some people were at the table counting ballots from their own town. This practice should clearly  be prohibited. Undoubtedly this could easily result in the counter becoming aware of how their  friends, neighbors or relatives voted, which is against the sanctity of the secret ballot.

Counters were told to darken light circles, and if an “X” was marked instead of the circle being filled in, they were to fill in the circle. Since regular pens and pencils were being used by the counters, that made it impossible to tell if alterations were legitimate or if they filled spaces for an office the voter left without making a selection.

On Nov. 9, it was decided all mail-in ballots, which should have included federal ballots received by Election Day, were counted and posted on the Middlesex County clerk website. On Nov. 14, the numbers changed.

To avoid fiascos in the future, I suggest we all push for legislation to be drafted, in a bipartisan effort, specifying guidelines to improve the Vote By Mail effort.

Lucille Panos
Middlesex County Republican Committee
Old Bridge