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Issues in Implementing All-VBM Elections in New Jersey

by Patrick Murray

[The following was presented as testimony to the New Jersey General Assembly State and Local Government Committee on June 17, 2020.]

I am not an expert in voter access law or the mechanics of election administration. I do know something about voter motivation and behavior. So that’s what I will address today in providing some context about what we saw in New Jersey in May’s local elections and what we may see in the July primary and beyond.

In 1992, more than 90% of all votes in America were cast traditionally – that is to say at polling places on Election Day. By 2016, the Election Day vote had dropped to 60% of national turnout, with the remainder evenly split between mail ballots and in-person early voting.

It is likely that vote by mail – or VBM – will increase this year because of Covid even without a state change. Half of voters in a recent national Monmouth poll said they are very (31%) or somewhat (20%) likely to vote by mail this year. Covid is accelerating the already existing move in states to provide more convenient – and safer – access to the voting franchise.

I want to talk about two related impacts – turnout and public confidence in the system.

-Turnout-

If you looked at the turnout in last month’s local elections here, you’ll notice a large increase for many, but not all, of those races. Looking at the six Bergen County school districts that held Board of Education elections, average turnout more than doubled in these contests compared to last year’s April elections. However, we didn’t see quite the same jump in more urban communities. Turnout was much higher in Irvington for both its municipal and school board elections, but was up only slightly in Newark’s school board race. Turnout was actually lower in municipal contests in Orange and Paterson than for the same races four years ago.  However, in both those cities, these races were less competitive than in the prior cycle – and you need to factor that in.

We need a larger sample of elections before we can draw any firm conclusions about VBM in New Jersey. However, it does seem that VBM had a bigger impact on turnout in the suburbs. There is one other side note to this. It appears that there were fewer undervotes on the public questions relative to overall turnout. So perhaps, VBM prompts more voters to fill out the entire ballot.

But July will be a statewide election, so the question is what do we know about turnout from other states that have implemented all-VBM?  Researchers are not quite agreed. It looks like there were initial bumps in Oregon and Washington when they first implemented all VBM more than a decade ago, but those gains may have been maintained inconsistently. VBM does seem to have had an impact in CO, which made the switch only recently. The impact seems to be higher in lower turnout elections.

There is no evidence that VBM has a partisan impact on turnout, even though Republicans tend to express less enthusiasm for it than Democrats. A study of recent elections in CA, UT, and WA by Stanford researchers, which was just released last week, found a negligible shift in pre-existing partisan turnout advantage related when those states moved to all VBM elections (maximum 0.7% Democrat).

Looking back at May, the overall picture is that VBM may increase turnout more in the suburbs than the cities. Irvington stands out as an exception to this limited finding. That may be in part because the municipal and school elections were combined. Holding fewer elections in a year has a measurable impact on increasing turnout by decreasing voter fatigue.

We also saw a five-fold increase in turnout for mayor and council in Montclair, which was much higher than the increased turnout in other municipal contests. However, most of the Montclair seats were uncontested in the prior cycle. And we know that the one thing guaranteed to cause a sizable increase in turnout is a competitive election. But it doesn’t look like we are going to have too many of those in July.

-Public Confidence-

The other issue I want to discuss is public confidence. Researchers have found a correlation between confidence that one’s vote will be counted accurately and the likelihood to vote. This is one area where New Jersey could have problems in July, particularly if there are close contests in high profile races.  And that’s because implementing VBM properly takes time.

A recent study by Brigham Young University political scientists found a decrease in public confidence in Utah after that state went to all-VBM. The percent of all Utah voters who said they were very confident that their ballot was counted accurately went from 69% after the 2008 election to 60% in 2018.  Nearly all the remainder were somewhat confident and only about 5% were not confident in either year. However, that dip in confidence was tempered by past experience with voting by mail. Among voters who had cast a mail ballot in two or more elections, strong confidence in the process stood at 68% – nearly identical to the 2008 number for all voters. This result was a similar 64% among those with one VBM ballot under their belts, but it was only 53% among those who voted by mail for the first time in 2018. Thus the switch to all VBM caused an initial dip in confidence that disappeared once voters experienced it.

On the other side of the coin, an examination of the voter files in one particular California county after it switched to all-VBM more than a decade ago actually found a decrease in individual voting turnout after that change. Confounding factors in that county included poor communication about the switch and large numbers of non-English speaking voters. These issues were not factors in Utah, Oregon or Washington State, but are the kind of things we could see here in New Jersey with our diverse population and sudden implementation of VBM.

It’s important to caveat this. New Jersey may face certain VBM problems that are not noticeable in July, because it is already a low turnout primary without high-profile competitive races at the top of the ticket. If we have an all- or even high-VBM election in November, though, these cracks in implementation could become more apparent.

So, let me mention some key factors that should be considered in implementing and examining VBM elections:

First, if you look at states that have successively implemented VBM, “vote by mail” is actually an inaccurate term. Yes, all voters receive their ballot by mail. But the vast majority actually deposit it at one of many offices and drop-box locations near them. Only about one-third of voters in these states actually return their vote by mail.  In other words, they do not rely on the U.S. Postal Service to carry the full load of delivering ballots. We already saw some problems in May with relying almost exclusively on the U.S. Postal Service to handle returned ballots. Some were missing the requisite postmark and others were not delivered to the county clerks in time, or at all. A successful VBM process requires multiple drop off locations that voters can easily access.

Second, we need to give voters the opportunity to rectify rejected ballots. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 16 states require clerks to notify voters if their ballot signature does not match the voter file. Election officials are not handwriting experts and should not have the final say based only on their own visual examination.

Third, allowing additional time for ballots to be received and problems to be addressed is also important for building public confidence. Some states only rectify problems for ballots received before Election Day, but others allow for a longer period to ensure full voter access. Washington, for example, gives voters from 10 to 21 days after the election to rectify signature discrepancies.

Fourth, another feature of a high-confidence VBM process is providing an easy way for a voter to verify that their ballot has in fact been accepted – via either automated phone interface or online.

Finally, VBM actually addresses a glaring security problem in New Jersey’s current voting system – the lack of a paper trail. While there are costs associated with moving to all-VBM elections, they more than offset the capital investment required to address the urgent need to replace all of the state’s existing voting machines.

These things, along with an extensive voter communication campaign, are some of the things that have contributed to the successful transition to all-VBM elections in other states. We lack most of these factors here in New Jersey. Even so, we may have a seemingly “successful” primary election here next month. However, that experience may not tell the whole story of how VBM might perform if we administer November’s high turnout general election in a similar way.

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