By Johnathan Miller
As of Monday, Election day is only 64 days away, and there is no better time than now to start creating a plan to vote on Nov. 3.
The coronavirus pandemic is upending the administration of voting in one of the most consequential elections in our lifetime. Where elections are typically conducted with close physical contact, machines, and, in some circumstances, long lines with minimal social distancing, states are now taking steps to alter how we vote in a time of health uncertainty.
What would the best method be to vote? What options are there to voting, and how will this affect how states count the votes and, more importantly, how we interpret the votes?
New Jersey Options: Voting by Mail or Voting In-Person?
New Jersey has been one of the states, like California, in which voting rights have been expanded over the past few years. The two ways to vote are in-person or through the mail. In-person voting allows voters to go to their polling locations on election day and vote through appropriate mechanisms. New Jersey uses polling machines to vote while other states, like Florida, votes are made with paper ballots. Voters would check in with the poll worker prior to voting. There can be some complications that may occur. Someone might have moved and forgot to change their registration, registered to vote after the deadline, gotten discouraged with long lines, and even something unexpected comes up and that person may not get a chance to vote.
Vote-by-mail (VBM), also known as absentee voting, is another way for voters to ensure their voices are heard. New VBM voters must, typically, send in an application to their county Board of Elections in order to get the ballot. Once the ballot is filled out, voters must carefully read the instructions. A misstep, like missing a signature, can result in a spoil ballot that is not counted. If the ballot gets spoiled, according to A4276, officials must send a cure letter to voters which allows them 48 hours to fill out a form and restore the ballot. Ballots must be postmarked, or dropped off by election day, Nov. 3, in order for it to count.
NJ Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has favored expanding VBM. A recent law, for example, sent ballots to voters, who used VBM in 2016, in each future election until the voter manually requests an opt-out. The purpose of this law is to boost voter turnout.
A Vote-by-Mail Election
As we face a world of uncertainty with COVID-19, state officials are moving to make changes in this upcoming election. Gov. Murphy has made an executive order, while also signing a law that it reinforced, which moved the general election to be conducted as a VBM election. What this would mean is that all registered voters would receive a ballot through the mail and allows voters to mail their ballots in. Voters would have the opportunity to drop off their ballots in secure ballot drop-off boxes. According to a new law, drop-off boxes must be placed in “any county government building that houses the county clerk is located,” a municipality government building, and at a higher institution.
Voters would be able to vote in-person if they so choose to do so. Each county will have some polling locations open for this election. Instead of counting on machines to count the votes, New Jersey voters would vote provisional ballots instead, which would allow the Board of Elections to double check for duplicate ballots.
If you are looking to vote early through the postal service, be sure to vote early. While ballots must be postmarked by election day in order to count, there may be unforeseen delays, especially if you live in a different state with stricter rules. United States Postal Service (USPS) recently sent out a letter to 46 states which warns of possible ballot delays.
To check for registration dates and for other ways to vote for other states, Nathaniel Rakich and Kaleigh Rogers, from FiveThirtyEight, created a guide to voting this year for all 50 states. They also provided a table to show the USPS recommendations on sending your ballot and how it is different from the jurisdiction deadline.
Vote-by-Mail Unintended Consequences
Through the push by election officials to encourage VBM, it may have brought upon an unintended consequence: how we view the results on election night. Voting by mail did not become very much partisan throughout our country’s history. Conservative states like Utah, as well as right-leaning states like Arizona hold VBM elections which boosts turnout and does not seem very partisan. The midterm elections, however, started to paint a slightly different picture.
In 2018, the House of Representatives flipped control with Democrats winning 40 seats previously held by Republicans, marking it as the biggest seat flip for the Democrats since the ‘70s. Most of those seats, however, weren’t called until a few weeks after the election. David Graham from the Atlantic explained that Martha McSally, a Republican candidate for Senate in Arizona, had led at the end of election night, but lost in weeks after 70,000 VBM helped push Kyrsten Sinema, her Democratic challenger, over the edge. McSally, after being appointed to another seat, is on the ballot again this year and faces the possibility of history repeating itself.
In California, where Democrats had pickup opportunities, the Democrats picked up all of them.
“We were only down 26 seats the night of the election and three weeks later, we lost basically every contested California race,” said Paul Ryan, former Speaker of the House (R-Wisc.). The races were tied on election night, but moved in Democratic directions after a number of VBM were counted. One race that was not on the radar was California’s 21st District. On the end of election night, Republican incumbent David Valadao was beating his Democratic challenger TJ Cox by 7 points, big enough for both the AP and other news to declare Valadao the winner. By the end, Cox pulled out a win.
Fast forward to 2020, it seems that VBM has become a major partisan divide. As President Donald Trump continues to cast doubt on VBM, voters are approaching voting mechanisms in a partisan fashion. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 30 percent of voters plan to vote through mail. With Trump voters, only 11 percent planned to vote through mail, while it was at 47 percent with Biden voters.
What does this mean?
Unless the election is a “landslide” for either candidate, we might not know the full results on election night. Like the midterm elections, states may not start counting votes until after election night, which, in return, will make it harder to know whether President Trump or Democratic challenger Joe Biden will prevail as the winner. There may be a situation where some early-vote is counted (as either early polling locations or some VBM that gets sent early) and Biden starts out with a healthy lead. By the time the election day vote is counted, Trump could either narrow the gap or overtake Biden. As the late vote gets counted is where Biden would have an opportunity to come back and win the election. Thus, the circumstance of going to bed at midnight with Trump leading but Biden winning weeks later remains a very likely scenario.
It may not be the only scenario that can occur. Florida counts its vote pretty fast, and, barring administration trouble, might give some insight on whether or not we will know the winner on election night. Florida is a battleground this election cycle, as in any election cycle, with 29 electoral votes. If the state is called for either candidate, it would be harder for the other candidate to pull out a win.
If you are waiting to know who the President-Elect is come November, be prepared for having an election month rather than an election day.
Johnathan Miller (Twitter: @JMiller_NJ) is a senior political science major from Lacey, N.J. He is glad to join the Equinox in covering the 2020 Presidential Election for students and to help students understand and participate in the political process.
Art by Elizabeth Scalzo.
Types of voting in 2020.