In Brief

Nonprofits sending vote-by-mail applications to 2M+ voters

By: - August 16, 2021 7:01 am

Voting-by-mail rates dropped this year after skyrocketing during the pandemic in 2020. (Photo by Justin Sullivan | Getty Images)

New Jersey’s mostly-mail 2020 elections shattered turnout records, and two nonprofits are looking to replicate the trend in this year’s races.

The Voter Participation Center and its sister organization, the Center for Voter Information, last week announced they would mail more than 2.4 million vote-by-mail applications to New Jersey voters in advance of November.

The effort will see applications mailed primarily to younger voters aged 18 to 35, people of color, and unmarried women.

“We know that those three communities vote at rates lower than their actual numbers in society, so our goal is to try and increase those numbers and help get eligible voters out to vote,” said Tom Lopach, president and CEO of both nonprofits.

All of New Jersey’s 2020 elections were conducted almost entirely using mail-in ballots over concerns about the threat posed by COVID-19.

Despite some hiccups, the policy led to record-high turnout. More than 4.6 million voters cast ballots in the 2020 general election, the most ever. That accounted for about 77% of registered voters at the time.

The nonprofits’ campaign could boost mail-in voting in urban communities where most residents are people of color. At 62%, general election turnout in Hudson and Essex Counties — both predominantly non-white Democratic strongholds — was the lowest in the state.

There’s no conscious push to target urban areas, Lopach said, though urban counties in the northern half of the state host the state’s largest communities of color, and residents there will likely be among those who receive the nonprofits’ mailers.

The mail blitz will be conducted in three waves. Some residents have likely already received applications included in the first wave. The next batch will be mailed next week, with the last coming sometime in early September.

“Over 17 years of doing this, we have learned that multiple waves of mail can be impactful,” Lopach said.

The first and final waves will each include about 390,000 applications, while the late-August batch covers more than 1.7 million applications.

New Jersey moved away from its mostly-mail system this year as COVID-19 case counts receded, and voter participation has declined. Only 19% of registered Republicans and Democrats cast ballots in the June 8 primaries, down from the just under 40% turnout seen in the 2020 primaries.

Some drop is to be expected: There’s generally less interest in elections for state office than ones for federal office, especially in presidential years.

Mail-in voting has been on the rise in New Jersey for decades. Just 2.6% of votes were cast by mail in 2003’s general election, compared to 28.6% this June, according to vote-by-mail data released by the New Jersey Department of State.

Vote-by-mail turnout tends to be lower in general elections than in primaries.

Part of the growth can be attributed to a 2019 law that requires election officials to perpetually send mail-in ballots to voters who requested such ballots for the 2016, 2017, or 2018 elections.

Separate reforms, including grace periods for late-arriving mail-in ballots and cure letters allowing voters to fix deficient ballots, have reduced mail-in ballot rejection rates, which climbed into the double digits during all-mail local elections held last May.

Election officials will begin sending mail-in ballots to voters on Sept. 18 and will continue accepting vote-by-mail applications until Nov. 1, the day before the general election.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.