You have questions about voting by mail? Here are the answers!

There has been a great deal of confusion and rumor about how we will all vote in the upcoming presidential election. We hope to dispel your concerns with this article.

Governor Murphy signed Executive Order 177 on August 14, 2020.  The Order describes how the election will be conducted.  The most important points of it are:

  • The election will be primarily vote-by-mail (VBM) – ballots will be mailed to all registered voters (if you’re not sure whether you are registered, you can check here or call the Mercer County Clerk’s office at 609-989-6494 or 6495). The return mail for the ballots will be postage paid.
  • Sample ballots will not be sent this year, but a letter that includes such information as where the secure drop boxes for ballots are will be sent to all active voters (MM note: so if you don’t get that letter, you should check your registration).
  • There will be at least one walk-in polling place in each municipality. However, the Boards of Elections must ensure that poll workers and voters are maintaining social distancing protocols under CDC guidelines.
  • If you go to the polls with the ballot that you received in the mail, the poll worker will accept it after verifying your identify. If you go to the poll without that ballot, you will be given a provisional ballot.
  • Ballots have to be mailed out to voters by October 5.
  • The deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot by mail, under N.J.S.A. 19:63-3, shall be October 23, 2020; -Every vote-by-mail ballot that is postmarked on or before November 3, 2020, and that is received by November 10, 2020, at 8:00 p.m. shall be considered valid

However, quite a few questions remain.  We posed some of them to Paula Sollami-Covello, the Mercer County Clerk. Sollami Covello was on vacation, but immediately answered our email and directed our questions to her assistant Susan Hansen. There were some questions the Clerk’s office couldn’t answer and Hansen forwarded those questions to Anthony Francioso, Chair of the Mercer County Board of Elections. Our questions, followed by their answers, are below.  Hansen’s answers are indicated by MCC; Fracioso’s by MCBOE.

If you take the ballot you received in the mail to the polling location, can you drop it off there? 
MCC: Executive Order 177 allows for drop off at the polling place.

Where will the secure ballot boxes be? 
MCC: Currently there are 5 drop boxes that were installed for the Primary Election.  Location of those boxes include the one at the Hopewell Township municipal building. 
MCBOE: There should be at least a total of 10 county-wide for the November Election. There are parameters for locations and the Commissioners must now meet to discuss and approve locations.   

How often will ballots be picked up? 
MCBOE: The ballot boxes will be emptied every day and we are awaiting direction from NJ Division of Elections as to pick-up for Saturday & Sunday.   
Will there be cameras to ensure no one messes with the boxes? 
MCC: Primary Election boxes were all under 24-hour surveillance.
MCBOE: Yes, all drop boxes are under surveillance 24/7 – it’s a requirement for installation/location. 

I’d like to know more about who will be retrieving ballots from drop off boxes. I’ve read that in some states 2 people go together, with one from each party. 
MCBOE: The drop boxes are opened, and the ballots are transported back to the Board of Elections, by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office and representatives from the Board of Election.  

What types of disabilities are the voting machines for?  How does someone indicate they have a disability?
BOE: As for disabilities for voting machine, that is to be answered by the Superintendent of Elections – however, all offices are awaiting direction from the NJ Division of Elections. For the primary election there was no standard – a voter could just advise that he/she had a disability and they signed a certification. 

What safeguards are there for ensuring that my vote will be counted? 
MCBOE: All Mailed in Ballots (MIBs) are scanned and processed through a scanning machine. The software tabulates the votes scanned/processed and the report is provided the County Clerk.  All of the election officials involved use best efforts to process the votes casts – no one wants to disenfranchise a voter. 

What do I do if I don’t receive my ballot?  At what point should I realize there is a problem (how many days before the election)? 
MCC: Ballots are being mailed out starting at the end of September and have to be out, as per Executive Order 177, by October 5. If a ballot is not received by October 12, call our office (609-989-6494 or 6495) and another ballot can be mailed or picked up.

Will there be any way to track my ballot or to call to follow up to make sure my vote was counted? 
MCBOE: The Board posts weekly reports on its website as to MIBs received. You can contact the Board by phone or e-mail to see if your ballot was received. Please note that, with thousands of requests coming in, usually the reports posted on the Board’s website may be a better option.  (MM Note:  you can also register to track your ballot here).

If there is a bar code on the back of my ballot, will it indicate my voter registration so that a postal worker with a different political affiliation might throw it out? 
MCC: The General Election ballot label does not include a political party to my knowledge, however I will have to research further.

How are poll workers monitored to prevent sorting and counting errors? 
MCBOE: Poll workers are only involved at the polling locations. The process of scanning ballots is supervised by Board of Election commissioners and our outside vendor Dominion Voting. There are safeguards in place to cross check the number of MIBs received versus processed. 

Can you describe the actions taken in case of challenges?
MCBOE: All challenges at the polling location or any other part of the voting process are handled in accordance with directives of NJSA Title 19.    

What does it mean when I get back a form that says my signature doesn’t match?  What is it compared against?  I sign my name all different ways – what if I can’t remember how I signed before? Also, I also heard if your signature doesn’t match, and County can verify your ID over phone, they will send (email?) you a copy of your original signature. I’m not sure I remember my signature perfectly. This will be a huge hurdle. 
BOE: The signature match – the signature on the MIB certification –  is compared to the signature on file with the Statewide Voter Registration System.  If, at the initial review, there is a question as to match a letter is sent directing the voter on how to correct and have their ballot received.  It will include a direction as to further information to be provide to the Superintendent of Elections and the Board of Election. 

How often is and how is County/State checking and updating registration rolls to make sure the dead or moved away cant vote? 
MCC: This is a question for the State Superintendent of Elections.

As we were writing this on Thursday, August 20, a press release came in from the County Clerk’s office. It is as follows:

Following the Governor’s executive order declaring the November 3 General Election as a primarily vote-by-mail election, Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello is strongly advising voters to update or verify voter registration and signature information with the Mercer County Clerk’s Office and Mercer County Superintendent of Elections.

It is recommended that all registered voters have an up-to-date physical address, and if they will be away between late September and Election Day, they should apply to vote by mail noting the mailing address required. It is also recommended that if a person has a permanent vote-by-mail status, they should make sure that the address that is on file is correct.  This can be done by calling the County Clerk’s Office at 609-989-6494 or 609-989-6495.

“In an election that will primarily be conducted through the mail, it is important that we have the most up to date information available for every voter,” said Sollami Covello. “This is the best way to have your vote counted in this important election.”

The County Clerk’s Office relies on the voter registration rolls for accuracy of addresses when mailing ballots. To help keep the most accurate records, anything that comes to your residence addressed to someone who does not currently live there should be put back in the mail and marked “return to sender.”

Before the election, all voters, regardless of party affiliation, will receive a mail-in ballot, where they will be able to fill in their choices. Return postage on all ballots is paid. In addition to mailing in their ballots, voters will have the option of placing their ballots in one of the secure drop boxes throughout the County. Voters who go to the polls will be able to vote by provisional (paper) ballot or in a voting machine (only if voter is disabled). At least one polling place per municipality will be available. Further details, including polling places and drop box locations, will be determined by the Mercer County Board of Elections.

The earliest ballots will be mailed out towards the end of September. The deadline to register to vote in time for the General Election is October 13. The deadline for the Clerk’s Office to receive a mailed in vote-by-mail application is October 23. Residents can also walk in to the Mercer County Clerk’s Office and request a mail-in ballot until Election Day at 8pm. All ballots sent in must be postmarked no later than November 3 and received by the Board of Elections no later than November 10, one week after the Election. Alternatively, voters may return their ballots personally to the poll workers at their polling place. 

For more information on the General Election, please visit the Mercer County Clerk’s Website at http://www.mercercounty.org/government/county-clerk.        

For a complete list of Mercer County polling and drop box locations, visit the Mercer County Board of Elections Website after September 8 at http://www.mercercounty.org/boards-commissions/board-of-elections.

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