TRENTON — A bill further increasing the number of people who will automatically get mail-in ballots, even if they didn’t request one this year, passed the Senate on Monday and could become law just in time for the November general election.
The bill requires election officials to send vote-by-mail ballots for all future elections to those who requested them from 2016 to 2018, unless they explicitly opt-out.
It also appropriates $2 million to help counties with the added costs. The Assembly will take up its version of the bill Tuesday.
Mail-in ballots must be sent out 45 days ahead of an election, so the law would have to be changed quickly if ballots are to be sent by Sept. 21 for the November Assembly election.
A law passed last September mandated the paper mail-in ballots be sent to all those who requested one in 2016, according to an interpretation by the secretary of state.
The 2018 law created a large spike in the number of mail-in votes cast and confusion at the polls that also resulted in a huge increase in provisional paper ballots.
Democrats said the 2018 law was intended to cover 2017 and 2018 as well. So they called a special session of the Senate on Monday, and of the Assembly on Tuesday, to vote on expanding the years covered.
“I think all of the confusion — once we do this tomorrow, it will be pretty clear,” said Assemblyman John Armato, D-Atlantic, who supports the bill. “I do think it’s a good thing. The mail-in ballot is more a convenience to some, but a necessity for others.”
The New Jersey Association of Counties filed a complaint with the New Jersey Council on Local Mandates about the 2018 law earlier this year, calling it an unfunded mandate.
That law did not appropriate any money for the counties, said NJAC Executive Director John G. Donnadio.
“We certainly appreciate the Legislature including a $2 million appropriation,” Donnadio said of the recent bill, “but we are hoping there will be a supplemental down the road or additional funding.”
Donnadio estimated the cost to counties of implementing the 2018 law was an extra $1.5 million for the 2018 general election and $1.2 million to $1.3 million for the 2019 primary election, with more added costs to come this November.
“It costs three times more to produce a vote-by-mail-in than a sample ballot,” Donnadio said.
Votes by mail must be printed on special bonded paper that can be scanned, he said.
That doesn’t include the extra labor costs of reading, checking and counting paper ballots, he said.
The trend toward greater use of mail-in ballots worries those concerned about ballot tampering and encourages those focused on increasing voter participation.
Use of the paper ballots hit a high of almost 12,000 of 96,000 votes cast in Atlantic County in November 2018, and is expected to keep increasing. Mail-in ballots were most popular in Atlantic City and Pleasantville, where there has been a history of alleged and proven vote tampering.
Provisional ballots hit a high for nonpresidential elections of 2,158 at the same time, according to officials.
The confusion was related to the many people who were automatically sent the ballots but were unaware of the new law, and showed up on election day at the polls.
Because they were on a list of having received a mail-in ballot, they were not allowed to vote by machine but had to fill out provisional paper ballots. Each provisional would only be counted once it was determined the person had not cast a vote by mail.
It cost a lot of extra money and time, said Board of Elections Chairwoman Evelyn “Lynn” Caterson last November.
Some say the same thing will happen this year since the law is again changing after a primary and right before a general election.
“I personally believe everyone who wants a mail-in ballot and is eligible to get one should get one,” Caterson said Monday. “But I also think there is a thing called voter responsibility to apply for one.”
She said the 2018 law also allowed registered voters, for the first time, to check a box asking to always be sent mail-in ballots, when they register to vote or when they apply for their first mail-in ballot.
The bill voted on Monday, S-4069, passed 22 to 10, with Democrats generally favoring and Republicans opposed.
The Senate bill was sponsored by state Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Cumberland, Gloucester, Salem.
In the Assembly, primary sponsors include Deputy Speaker Adam J. Taliaferro, D-Cumberland, Gloucester, Salem; Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt, D-Burlington, Camden; and Assemblywoman Patrica Egan-Jones, D-Camden, Gloucester.