High volume of mail-in ballots a challenge for county clerks

BY Briana Vannozzi, Senior Correspondent |

Not long after polls closed Tuesday night, Somerset County’s Board of Elections made the request: a court order suspending the vote by mail ballot count due to volume the office has never before experienced.

“With the amount we had this year, which was over 18,000, they just simply couldn’t handle it. Nobody had anticipated we would have that rate of return,” said Somerset County Clerk Steve Peter.

Peter says the new vote by mail law, signed in August of this year, didn’t give county election offices much time to prepare for what turned out to be an unprecedented midterm election.

“In 2016 my office sent out altogether fewer than 17,000 requested ballots. So those weren’t the amount returned, those were the ones requested, so we had more returned this year than were requested in the presidential election,” Peter said.

The count was suspended until 9 a.m. Wednesday, meaning there are still no winners declared for a number of municipal races. Anecdotally, Peter says judges in six other counties across the state issued similar orders last night. Those local races hang in limbo too.

Former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno said the law was rolled out hastily and issues like this could be seen across the state.

“It was rolled out very quickly. I think it caught a lot of the clerks by surprise. I wish that they had given us more lead time or postponed the actual effect of the law until the beginning of the year. But I think all 21 clerks managed to get the job done,” she said.

The new law automatically enrolls anyone who voted by mail in the 2016 presidential election. That caused a huge surge — nearly 300 percent more vote by mail ballots were issued this midterm compared to the previous. And Peter says overall turnout in Somerset County was up 13 points from last year’s gubernatorial election.

Preliminary statewide turnout numbers reveal the same, with 46 percent this year, down from 68 percent in 2016, but still significantly higher than the 36 percent in the last midterm.

“I think there is a clamoring for early voting in the state, and the fact that we don’t have it by machine is something the legislators might want to look at,” Peter said.

If these numbers continue, it’s likely delayed counting and results for local elections will become the new norm. Though there’s one area where mostly everyone can agree — it’s certainly driving voter turnout.