HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - Hunterdon County Clerk Mary Melfi is preparing for a 2020 General Election dissimilar to and more challenging than any other in her many decades of service to her home communities of Hunterdon County and the county seat, Flemington Borough.
She’s never prepared for any election, including her own runs for local office, quite like she and colleagues in the county administration have for the gauntlet that November 2020 presents.
County Board of Elections Administrator and Supervisor Beth Thompson said the most ballots Hunterdon County ever issued in any prior U.S. Presidential Election year was 15,000 – for the Nov. 3 election, she is expecting to issue 95,000 ballots. Thompson has been part of the team overseeing the past three presidential elections, and noted that the second of those three came one week after the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy in late October 2012.
“We thought that was going to be the worst election process we’d ever have to do, and this year’s has been much more challenging,” she said. “New Jersey has 21 counties all working in a voter registration system that is fluid.”
The most ballots the Hunterdon County Board of Elections has ever handled and counted before the July 7, 2020, New Jersey Primary election was around 13,000, Thompson said, and then the record was set two months ago as 32,000 were returned.
“We are guessing anywhere from another 60,000 to 75,000 more ballots to be processed for the presidential election,” she said.
Melfi’s area of responsibility is the design of the General Election ballots for county voters, and getting them out to all registered voters. The Board of Elections’ responsibility, which Thompson oversees, is bringing in all ballots and counting the votes, while Melfi will certify election results.
Melfi said that while ballots have been designed, the roughly 100,000 ballots need to go out to voters by Oct. 5.
“Many of our municipal clerks are working with me, as is our county administration and staff,” she said. “It is going to be tough, it’s going to be tight but it is going to get done.”
As November nears and the processes of the New Jersey primary election in July are reviewed for any key adjustments or planning, staffing needs of the Board of Elections has increased. Poll workers have been added once the Board of Chosen Freeholders and Hunterdon County HR were consulted for the hires.
“We have more than enough poll workers, as we’ve hired over 173 workers to man the 26 polling locations we will have throughout the county,” Thompson said. “One table will be set up for every district in the county. Each poll worker will have a provisional ballot bag and a mail-in ballot drop box bag, plus a certificate for any voters who come in and provide verification that they have a disability that prevents them from voting on paper.”
She noted that for the July 7 primary, three voters provided such info on their disability, and they were allowed to use the traditional voting machines on-site. The vast majority of 2020 voters will be allowed to drop off their vote-by-mail ballots or fill out a provisional ballot at any of the 26 locations in Hunterdon.
The County has set up a user-friendly web page, “One Stop General Election Information Center” at www.co.hunterdon.nj.us/Election2020.htm, to provide information on polling and ballot drop box locations, as well as contact information for Thompson and the county Board of Elections.
Two videos are now posted on the website, one that shows voters how they can complete paper (mailed) ballots once they receive them, and the second demonstrating what the process is when a ballot is returned to the Board of Elections.
In addition, Melfi has planned a two-sided color printed reference, an informational postcard. Thompson said this was not a mandated step for the county to take, but Melfi and her team helped make it a reality to best serve the county’s elderly population or anyone without Internet access at home or otherwise.
The postcard is being printed and mailed out of the Hunterdon County Clerk’s office budget account, and it will not be reimbursed by the State of New Jersey.
“Every single registered voter in Hunterdon will receive a postcard letting them know that this will be an all-vote-by-mail ballot election regardless of coming into a polling center,” Thompson said. “This notifies them that they will receive a ballot by a certain date and they will be getting the information on where their local polling locations will be if they choose to vote provisionally, and it has all drop box locations listed. This postcard is unique to our county, and we felt it was something needing to be done in order to get the word out.”
The four options for the return of vote-by-mail paper ballots are stated online, and Melfi noted that a voter can return, at most, their own ballot plus three additional ballots filled out by next-of-kin or relatives, a total of four dropped off by an individual in-person. Next year, the law changes for an individual to allow five ballots at a time if they are all from immediate family members.
During the July 2020 state primary, there were 288 ballots that were not able to be counted in Hunterdon County because, on each, the voter’s certificate was not signed. For another 44, the signatures did not match what the county Board of Elections had on file for the voter.
Melfi said the Board of Elections was proactive in following up on votes for the primary with its Voter Contact outreach. Thompson noted the questions that came up as a result, and she described her office’s “Ballot Cure” procedure as a remedy as ballots arrive and are counted.
“As ballots come in and are removed from their transportation envelope, we work to verify the voter’s signature,” she said. “If there is no signature, that ballot goes back into the transportation envelope and becomes ‘quarantined’ - the voter who that belongs to is immediately issued a Ballot Cure Packet, a letter and a form with their information on it, plus a request in writing to return that form with their signature and identification. Also, the voter is provided with a postage-prepaid envelope to return that form in. Once that form comes in, the signature becomes the signature that is required on the certificate, and that ballot is removed from the privacy envelope and that form is then attached to the privacy envelope and made to be their certificate. Then the ballot will go along with all the other ballots that need to be opened and scanned on Election Day. That is the same process taken if signatures do not match after myself, my deputy and our four Board of Elections commissioners have the final vote.”
The Board of Elections receives a print-out of every signature on file for the particular voter if signature matching is in doubt.
“If the signatures simply can’t be verified, the same process takes place with that ballot being ‘quarantined,’” Thompson said. “It goes into a separate file and the Ballot Signature Cure packet is sent to the voter, with an explanation that the signature we have on file doesn’t match and that you are to provide a signature and ID on a form, plus the prepaid envelope and date to return materials by.”
With the timing of processing ballots for the Nov. 3 General Election this year, any Ballot Cure recipients in Hunterdon County would have until the end of business day Nov. 18, “or 48 hours before official certification of the election is due for the State of New Jersey, which I believe is on Nov. 20,” Thompson said.
Many of the same vote-count processes were adjusted due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the pushed-back date of New Jersey’s primary election.
One of the considerations for signature evaluation is that many people sign up to vote at the New Jersey Motor Vehicles Commission (MVC) offices in person, where their signatures are recorded on an electronic pin pad and that is not an accurate representation of how they’d sign on paper, Melfi said.
“We have a data file too of anything signed from voter history, throughout the voting lifetime of a person, anything from voter registration to party affiliation forms and documents with the different signatures,” she said. “When things were normal, we’d go through the files, and for the most part people have something in their signature remaining the same. If not, then our office would call and say this is not your signature.”
Another issue found with this year’s primary, though just 13 such instances were on record for Hunterdon County, was in the Board of Elections not being able to count votes as party-affiliation change was not properly indicated. Party preference or affiliation is traditionally noted on a voter registration form, an online form or through DMV records where it was filled out.
Party affiliation does not impact voter privilege for the general election, but the mail-in procedures for the July primary halted voters from being able to go into the polls and declare the party they would vote in on-site. Instead, applications to Melfi’s office were submitted with the party listed so staff would know which primary ballot to issue.
“When someone changes their party, it does not affect how they vote in a general election,” Thompson said. “According to state law, if you change parties from one to another, you must do so 55 days prior to a primary. If it’s done after the primary, you are ineligible to vote in that primary. Unaffiliated voters, though, can change their affiliation right up until the day of the election. A lot of the process was different for our 2020 primary due to COVID-19 and Gov. (Phil) Murphy’s executive orders as unaffiliated voters had to declare prior to the primary because they needed to get the ballots of their choice.”
In addition to her career with the Hunterdon Board of Elections, Thompson volunteers as first vice president for the New Jersey Association of Election Officials (NJAEO).
“Mary (Melfi) and I are working with the Board of Chosen Freeholders to make sure we have the resources and supplies we’ll need to get through this type of an election,” she said. “New Jersey is not entirely set up for a vote-by-mail process, and we are lacking in equipment to process the kind of volume of ballots the state will be issuing this year, and we’re constantly working on personnel and resources while social distancing and keeping everyone safe in this pandemic.”
“When you are allowed to start issuing ballots now and voter registration cutoff is Oct. 13, there are still many fluctuations to adjust for,” she added. “People move out of the state, move from one part of the county to another and eligible voters pass away every day. It is very difficult to deal with timelines. Keeping track takes a lot of patience and cooperation between the Board of Elections office and county clerk’s office to ensure that the people are correctly issued ballots and those who move to another county in the state aren’t issued a second ballot at a new address. This is tedious and strenuous.”