As a noted political scientist, Ben Dworkin always gets excited by Election Day.
Today, however, is different.
It’s not just that the state will hold its first mostly vote-by-mail, or “VBM” election, it’s that people like Dworkin — the director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship — and the people who run and try to influence campaigns will be more interested in the process than the final vote totals.
The totals, of course, will not be known for days — perhaps even weeks — as the largely mail-in votes for this primary will need to be counted in some fashion. Figuring out just who voted will be of greater interest for those in politics.
“We used to be so good at being able to predict who was going to vote — and who they were going to vote for — that we often had solid data days and weeks before elections,” Dworkin said. “This year, no one knows.
“No one knows how to get out the vote this time. No one knows how people will manage the situation. That’s what people who run campaigns will be watching.”
That’s a shame. For, while there are two high-profile races — who will be the Democratic candidate in the 2nd Congressional District (taking on U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew) and who will be the Republican candidate in the 3rd (taking on Rep. Andy Kim) — there are other races that have great importance that will be decided.
The primaries, after all, are where many mayors and council members are elected. This time, it will be done in a system no one really understands.
“So, while it’s a dry run for a potential VBM election in November — including for all the boards of elections – this is a very important day for a lot of people,” Dworkin said.
Here are five things Dworkin said he’ll be watching carefully:
Issue: “There are boards of elections who have to count all these ballots, and they don’t have the means,” he said. “And they’re not allowed to hire people because it used to be a patronage mill. Suddenly, our election is going to be like 1824, when you had to wait weeks to see who won. Election night is just going to go on and on.”
Conclusion: Figuring out this potential process for November will be key.
The Postal Service
Issue: It’s not for reasons one might think, Dworkin said. “The campaigns aren’t getting it,” he said. “All of the people I’ve talked with want to speak with the ‘regional manager’ or the person who is in charge. That’s not the person they should be worried about — it’s the person with a satchel who thinks these ballots are supermarket circulars and they’re going to dump them in the mailroom of some apartment building.”
Conclusion: There’s got to be a better way. Perhaps there is.
Issue: Looking for a better solution than the post office? Look to Colorado, which is all vote-by-mail. Only 25% of votes come in through the Postal Service (Dworkin credits Patrick Murray, the famed Monmouth University pollster, for this information). The other 75% come in through “drop boxes,” which are placed around the state. The state gave each New Jersey county five of these boxes — and gave them the ability to buy more, at about $5 grand a pop.
Conclusion: Counties will soon realize this is the way to go. But buying drop boxes is just one issue. Where they are put (they have to be in places that can be monitored by camera) potentially will have a huge impact on who can use them. This is something to watch moving forward.
Issue: The state made the decision to go vote-by-mail late, so everything was rushed. “There needs to be more breathing room,” Dworkin said. “The state needs to make a decision by the beginning of August on what they are going to do in November.”
Conclusion: It’s hard to believe COVID-19 will be under control in November. The state needs to commit to VBM sooner rather than later, as Gov. Phil Murphy is fond of saying.
Issue: The lack thereof has been a big a problem. “They’re finally started to put some stuff on social media about it, but you’re not seeing commercials on TV in the same way they are promoting the census,” Dworkin said. “Murphy rarely brings it up. No one is saying, ‘Hey, there’s an election on a new date. And this is how it is going to work. Don’t just expect to go to your normal polling booth, because we cut down half of them.’ This should have been a state function and they did not embrace it.”
Conclusion: Dworkin’s right. There needs to be a massive public education campaign for fall. Too many local elections depend on it.
If you’re looking for good news, hear this: Historically, states that have vote-by-mail have a higher voter turnout — or, better said, more votes cast.
Who will be casting them is what political players will be trying to determine.
“We were awfully sophisticated a year ago,” Dworkin said. “Political operatives on both sides really knew what was happening and could tell you a week out where things stood. This year, they don’t know. And, even more, they’ll tell you they don’t know.”
Murphy, during his daily COVID-19 briefing Monday, said he’ll be watching closely. He also said he doesn’t expect to get a whole lot of answers on Election Day.
“This will be something that will take some number of days to really give this the postmortem that it needs,” he said.
He said he hopes there will be great turnout — and he hopes there won’t be any attempts at voter suppression.
“But, in fairness, it will take some time to give a full accounting for how this worked,” he said. “The good news is, we have time in order to make the decisions that we’ll need to make for the November election, but our premise begins and ends with we want as many people as possible to have the ability to vote.”
Figuring out who those people are is the goal today.