N.J. lawmakers seek to clarify, fund state’s vote-by-mail overhaul

In this file photo, election workers begin to sort a new batch of ballots collected earlier in the day, Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Renton, Wash. Voters in Washington all vote only by mail. (Elaine Thompson/AP Photo)

In this file photo, election workers begin to sort a new batch of ballots collected earlier in the day, Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Renton, Wash. Voters in Washington all vote only by mail. (Elaine Thompson/AP Photo)

The New Jersey Senate passed a bill Monday that aims to clear up some confusion about the state’s new vote-by-mail law and provide funding to implement it in the November general election.

The state Assembly has scheduled a Tuesday vote. A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy said he intends to sign the measure if it reaches his desk.

A 2018 overhaul required county clerks to send vote-by-mail ballots to any New Jersey voters who had received them in the 2016 election, unless they opted out. The new legislation makes clear that the rule also applies to any voters who received mail-in ballots during any 2017 or 2018 elections.

“More people voting is better for everyone,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester.

The bill also appropriates $2 million for counties, after they complained that the vote-by-mail law imposed new requirements on clerks’ offices without giving them any funding to defray the new costs.

In January, the New Jersey Association of Counties filed a complaint with the state, claiming that the vote-by-mail law amounted to an “unfunded mandate” on county governments.

“Unfunded mandate, basically, is what the counties were going to charge,” Sweeney said. “And they would have been successful. So we put the money so that we won’t have that challenge.”

Association of Counties executive director John Donnadio said he was grateful for the proposed $2 million appropriation but cautioned that it may not be enough.

“I think it’ll be more than $2 million. We think it’ll be at least double that, quite frankly, if you factor in the printing and the postage and the labor costs,” he said, “especially now that we’re heading into the general election and our county clerks will be pressed for time.”

Donnadio said the association was reviewing its complaint to decide how to proceed.

Still, voting rights advocates praised the legislation.

According to Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, the state’s vote-by-mail overhaul has already increased voter turnout. And she said that could be even more salient this year when there are legislative elections, but no race for governor or for federal offices.

“Particularly in an Assembly race, where you might see low voter turnout, this gives voters one more way to participate and makes it more likely that they’ll do so,” she said.

Burns encouraged any voters who were unsure whether they were signed up to receive a vote-by-mail ballot to contact the league or their county clerk’s office.

Any New Jersey voters who receive vote-by-mail ballots but show up to polling places on election day anyway can cast provisional ballots.

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