Former President Donald Trump repeatedly derided mail-in voting — which saw widespread adoption as governments looked to stem the spread of COVID-19 — and a cohort of GOP state lawmakers raised alarms over the practice, alternatively arguing residents did not trust it or urging in-person machine voting be allowed.
Once their efforts to head off Gov. Phil Murphy's order met with little success, the party eventually began urging its members to cast the mail-in ballots sent to every registered voter in the state.
This year's races haven't seen similar GOP pushes against mail-in voting. State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris), who railed against last year's mostly mail elections, explained that conditions are different this year.
“The polls are open. Not only are they open, but there's early voting, so I think that took a big egg out of it," said Pennacchio.
Republican gubernatorial hopeful Jack Ciattarelli isn't exactly driving constituents toward mail-in voting, but he's not urging them to abandon the practice either.
Ciattarelli campaign manager Eric Arpert said it's “really the voters' choice" this year, with three options: mail-in voting, early in-person voting, and traditional Election Day voting. Urging voters who are on a list to get a mail-in ballot to vote in person instead means they would have to vote by provisional ballot, he noted.
“And certainly that's not as effective as just voting by mail or delivering their ballot to one of their local drop boxes," he said.
The data bears that out. Republicans have, so far, cast vote-by-mail ballots at slightly higher rates than Democrats.
According to vote-by-mail data maintained by Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University's Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, 31.8% of GOP voters who received a mail-in ballot this year have already voted as of Thursday afternoon, compared to 30.9% of Democrats.
“More significant to me than whether or not they've got an edge is that they're in the game at all," Rasmussen said. “These are Republican voters who do trust vote-by-mail, or they wouldn't have asked for those ballots. We couldn't have said that last year, because everybody got them."
Though Murphy has allowed in-person voting for this year's races, other voting changes enacted over recent years are still in effect, including a six-day grace period to count mail-in ballots election officials receive after Election Day and a law that requires voters who request such ballots receive them for future elections.
Studies have shown mail-in voting does not benefit either party disproportionately and instead boosts turnout across the board, but the reality is more complicated. Like all get-out-the-vote operations, mail strategies take time to build. Democratic county organizations, particularly in South Jersey, have for years emphasized mail-in voting. Republicans have not undertaken similar efforts.
While GOP voters have mailed in their ballots at a slightly higher rate so far this year, Democrats account for the vast majority of requested and returned ballots. As of Thursday, 512,234 New Jersey Democrats, just under 20% of the party's membership, had requested vote-by-mail ballots, and 158,741 had returned them. By contrast, the 164,404 Republicans that requested mail-in ballots accounted for a little less than 11% of the New Jersey GOP, and 52,218 of them had cast their ballots as of Thursday.
“It doesn't surprise me, but again, I think if you're a Republican, you have to say, 'This is great that we're at least in the game,'" Rasmussen said.
Even among Democrats, vote-by-mail uptake has been far from universal. At 62%, turnout rates in the 2020 general election were lower in Essex and Hudson counties, both Democratic strongholds, than anywhere else in the state.
Hudson has seen some increases in mail-in voting, Hudson County Democratic Chairwoman Amy DeGise said, but much of that has been limited to young voters, especially young white women.
Skepticism over mail-in voting among elderly voters and voters of color — just 28.5% of Hudson County residents are white, according to census data — has largely persisted.
“Our older voters, to them voting is an experience. They go to their polling location, they see friends from the neighborhood that they don't see as regularly as they want, they sit and talk, and they linger," DeGise said. “Voting by mail for them, that keeps them in the house, and they don't want to be in the house. They want to get out."
The story's similar in Essex County, where 42% of residents are black and 24% are Latino.
“People in Essex County are more confident and more trusting of the machines," said Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones, who also chairs the Democratic State Committee. “People look forward to marching to the polling sites, much like their own personal crusade for change."
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