Counting votes in Atlantic

Atlantic County election workers count mail-in and provisional ballots Wednesday at the Board of Elections in Mays Landing.

State laws that created voter confusion and a flood of mail-in ballots in 2018 and 2019 elections were voided Friday by a state panel.

The New Jersey Council on Local Mandates ruled in favor of the New Jersey Association of Counties, which had sued the state, calling the laws unfunded mandates, said John G. Donnadio, executive director of the association. The new law created a spike in the number of mail-in ballots Atlantic County had to process this year. This year alone, about 20,000 mail-in ballots were sent to voters in Atlantic County, and 9,700 were returned and counted, said Board of Elections Chairwoman Lynn Caterson. The last time the Assembly was at the top of the ticket, in 2015, 4,532 mail-in ballots were cast in Atlantic County.

“In the absence of any funding of the mandate, we find and determine that the challenged laws constitute unfunded mandates,” wrote John A. Sweeney, council chairman, in his Nov. 15 order. “The Council holds that the challenged provisions of the law shall cease to be mandatory in their effect and shall forthwith expire.”

The Council on Local Mandates “has the exclusive constitutional authority to rule that a State law, rule, or regulation imposes an unconstitutional ‘unfunded mandate’ on boards of education, counties, or municipalities,” according to its website.

Also Friday, Caterson said a judge has decided to accept about half of the 80 mail-in ballots the board could not make a decision on because some didn’t think signatures matched. They will be counted and added to the county totals, and the Nov. 5 election results should be certified Monday afternoon, she said.

Two years in a row, the state Legislature passed laws, and the governor signed them, right before election time expanding who would get mail-in ballots. In 2018, a new law required counties to send mail-in ballots to anyone who requested one in 2016. Then in August, the Legislature passed another law, requiring counties to automatically send mail-in ballots to anyone who requested one in 2017 or 2018.

The first law had no funding attached to it, and the second said the state would contribute $2 million to counties, but that money has not been made available, according to the Council on Local Mandates.

The Association of Counties has said $2 million was not enough to make up for the added personnel and printing and mailing costs involved for all 21 counties.

Donnadio, a lawyer who argued the case for the association, said now the Legislature must either allow the laws to die or write new ones and provide funding to the counties for their implementation.

“These vote-by-mail laws didn’t change one’s ability to vote by mail,” Donnadio said. People could already do that by simply calling and requesting a mail-in ballot.

“The only thing they really did was cause confusion among voters, a tremendous amount of work for the county clerks, boards of elections and poll workers.”

Many people showed up to the polls to vote, only to be told they had received a mail-in ballot they didn’t request, and had to fill out a provisional ballot. Provisionals are only counted once it is verified the voter hadn’t returned a vote-by-mail ballot.

“Part of the problem is both laws were signed very close to the election,” Donnadio said. It didn’t give county clerks time to educate voters, and voters didn’t have time to opt out before mail-in ballots were sent to them.

“There was also a tremendous amount of waste with the number of ballots sent out vs. returned. It was mind-boggling.”

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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