Legislature approves vote-by-mail bill, Murphy signoff expected

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

Dismissing GOP questions about their motives, Democrats in the state Assembly on Tuesday approved a bill making it easier to vote by mail, following the lead of the Senate which passed the same measure during a similarly rare summer session Monday.

The measure – calling for mail-in ballots to be sent automatically to all voters who requested them in any election in 2017 and 2018 — was approved along party lines, 44-14, in the Democrat-majority lower house. It was the only item on the agenda.

Minority Leader Jon Bramnick said if the Assembly speaker is going to call lawmakers in for a vote during the last week of August, the subject at hand should be a matter of greater importance.

“They’re here for one reason. It’s to so-call expand this vote-by-mail process that would require the [county] clerks to send out automatically vote-by-mail ballots,” Bramnick said. “This is clearly not the high priority of the people of the state of New Jersey.”

Republicans see the bill as an attempt to wring as many Democratic votes as possible out of the system.

“When you have a state that has one million more Democrats than Republicans, obviously it benefits the Democrats to have as many vote by mail ballots out there possible,” Bramnick added.

Democrats dispute that assertion, and said their intent is merely to boost voter participation.

“I’m shocked he would make that comment,” Majority Leader Lou Greenwald said of Bramnick. “There’s no more important issue than the democratic process and voter participation.

“This is a program that’s become overwhelmingly popular,” he added. “You see more and more residents every year participating in it. Unfortunately, I think the minority leader’s got a little bit of sour grapes because they’re getting less and less votes every year.”

The office of Gov. Phil Murphy has said that he intends to sign the bill.

The bill provides $2 million to cover extra costs counties incur in complying with its terms. Senate President Steve Sweeney said Monday that provision was designed to head off claims that the law presented an “unfunded mandate” imposed by Trenton on local governments.

Back in 2018, anyone who had voted by mail in the 2016 general election was automatically sent a mail-in ballot. But Secretary of State Tahisha Way, who oversees elections, ruled that in 2019 anyone who wanted to vote by mail would have to apply for a mail-in ballot.

The new higher standard for 2019 didn’t sit well with Democrats.

Twelve percent of New Jersey voters voted by mail last year, up from 7 percent in 2014.

This year the Assembly election tops the ticket, with all 80 seats in the lower house up for grabs.

Each leader was asked what’s his party’s message is going into the Nov. 5 election.

“Why would you send two more Democrats to Trenton when they already have 54 votes. They only need 41.” Bramnick said. “They’ve been in charge for 17 years … Does the Democratic-controlled legislature, did they earn your vote over the last 17 years by making us the most expensive state in the nation?”

“The message is very clear,” Greenwald said. “We’re working for you. We walk in your shoes. We live in your neighborhoods. We understand the problems that you face.”

This story contains material from the Associated Press.