New Jersey Sued to Force Overhaul of Mail-In Voting Rules

(Photo credit: Dwight Burdette/Wikipedia)

NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — Advocacy groups want New Jersey to change its process for mail-in voting, claiming in a federal lawsuit Monday that the system could discourage “tens of thousands” of voters who vote from home due to Covid-19.

New Jersey sends mail-in ballots to voters 45 days before an election. According to the lawsuit, filed by the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, and a voter, that is not ample time to ensure that mail-in ballots with errors are corrected.

Voters who mail their ballots could have their votes tossed without knowing, the complaint claims, as election officials can reject mail-in ballots based on signature verification.

“New Jersey’s failure to provide mail-in voters with notice and an opportunity to cure signature-related errors before rejecting their vote-by-mail ballots is unconstitutional under any circumstance,” the complaint states.

Since 1996, mail-in voting has increased slowly but steadily with 23% of ballots during the 2018 election mailed in, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

The New Jersey Division of Elections similarly found that mail-in ballots have become increasingly popular, more so during presidential election years.

“This year, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue takes on greater urgency because of New Jersey’s already demonstrated — and dramatic — shift towards voting by mail,” the plaintiffs say in their lawsuit.

New Jersey is one of 36 states that must confirm the signature on a mail-in ballot is identical to a voter’s on-file signature. If a signature doesn’t match, the ballot is not counted. 

During the 2016 election, about 4,000 mail-in votes were discounted, with 1,100 rejected due to a perceived lack of a signature match, the plaintiffs say. During the 2018 midterms, the results were worse, with 6,000 mail-in ballots discounted — nearly 2,000 due to signature concerns. 

“Signature verification is an inherently flawed means to determining whether a mail-in ballot is fraudulent or inappropriately cast,” the plaintiffs say, adding stress, neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease, or even the types of pens used could alter a signature and make it appear different than normal.

Citing a study by the ACLU of Florida, the lawsuit contends that black and Latino voters are more likely to have their ballots rejected. The study noted that voters who send ballots via the mail have little recourse to follow up when their ballots are rejected, something the complaint notes is also true in New Jersey. 

The lawsuit seeks a remedy to the New Jersey ballot system before the state’s presidential primary is held July 7, particularly as concerns over the coronavirus could lead to a huge shift towards mail-in voting.

During local elections throughout the state on May 12, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered all ballots to be cast by mail.

Mail-in voting is becoming increasingly popular, but Democrats favor it more than Republicans

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has proposed that every single registered voter receive a mail-in ballot for November’s election. 

Other officials view mail-in ballots as an excellent tool to entice disabled people and elderly voters to participate in elections.

Mail-in voting is not universally popular, however. Last month President Donald Trump called mail-in ballots “a terrible idea” and projected that with nationwide mail-in voting, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Some political scientists have said that mail-in ballots are more prone to fraud than other types of voting, though they also say cases of such fraud are still extremely rare.

A spokeswoman for New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way did not return a phone call seeking comment.

The Campaign Legal Center, New York City law firm Kaufman Lieb Lebowitz & Frick, and the New Jersey Institute for Social Good are representing the plaintiffs.

The Campaign Legal Center and the American Civil Liberties Union have filed similar challenges in other states, such as in Tennessee and Texas, where mail-in ballots are highly restricted. 

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