By John Burton
On Election Day it was shaping up to be a long headache for voters, of course, but also for candidates, campaign operatives and for county officials, as they all tried to make sense of the mess that developed with allowing email voting for those who continue to be impacted by the effects of Super Storm Sandy.
M. Claire French, the county clerk, acknowledged on Tuesday that her office had been having great difficulty in addressing the large request for email ballots since Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno announced last Saturday that it would be an option for voters.
“It’s safe to say we’ve received many thousands of requests for ballots,” via email, said French. So many, in fact that the statewide voters registration system, the system her staff works with, actually crashed temporarily on Tuesday morning.
“We can only do what the system is designed to do,” she said.
On top of that complication, French explained, her staff has been addressing the more than 6,000 voters around Monmouth County who had decided to cast their ballots earlier than Nov. 6, by going to the clerk’s office in Freehold.
“People were standing outside in the cold for hours,” French said. And despite that large number, “We did accommodate everyone who was in line,” she stressed.
The problem arose when voters who sent emails requesting ballots failed to receive a prompt reply, again sent requests, sometimes multiple times, French said. “We have to go through every one,” to ensure requests aren’t missed, she said.
And that has strained her limited staff, she said. “We have all of our workstations working full-out,” she said.
French, a Republican, is also seeking re-election as county clerk, a job she has held since 1997.
Guadagno, in her other role as secretary of state, approved last weekend plans to allow residents of storm-ravaged New Jersey to vote the same way they could if they were overseas or members of the military stationed overseas, allowing them to cast their ballots sort of electronically. This decision was in response to the impact of last week’s storm that as of Election Day left many residents around the state displaced and without electricity.
Emails and phone messages to the secretary of state’s office in Trenton on Tuesday were not immediately answered.
Voting by email isn’t as simple as filling in the ballot and returning it electronically to the county clerk’s office. Voters had to first request the ballots, with the clerk’s staff checking to make sure they were registered voters; voters then had to print the ballot, fill it in; and then either fax it to the clerk’s office or scan it and email it back.
Torin Kelly, campaign director for Anna Little, the Republican candidate for the 6th Congressional District, covering much of Monmouth County, said she has been hearing from voters who were frustrated in their attempts to get ballots and were confused with the process. “The big problem has been access to clear information,” Kelly said.
Frank Pallone Jr., the Democratic incumbent representing the 6th and who is running for re-election against Little, said his office, too, has been getting calls about this. “A lot of them said they applied and couldn’t get the ballot,” he noted.
While it has been used in limited fashion before, “The idea of using emails does present a lot of problems,” Pallone acknowledged, not in the least is security concerns and the ability of the clerk’s staff to handle it.
“The problem with emails,” said John O. Bennett, the county’s Republican chairman, “is the insufficient time to prepare for this.”
While it was well intended, “It’s the sheer volume of work,” for those responsible for overseeing it,” Bennett added.
Vin Gopal, the county’s Democratic chairman, had stronger words. “Look, we had a horrible disaster,” with the storm, he said, “but this should have been better planned.
“There are a million problems that could have come up with this,” Gopal charged. “They should have known that.”
French said she has been in regular contact with Guadagno and the clerk hopes there might be a way to extend the time for people to respond. But that still remained to be seen as of Tuesday afternoon, she said.
As Election Day drew to a close, both Bennett and Gopal said they were rounding up lawyers to prepare possible legal challenges that may arise.
“We want to make sure everyone gets to exercise their right to vote today,” Kelly said, hinting at what might come on Nov. 7, “and if there are issues to be found they will be made right.”
“This is going to be interesting to see how this comes out,” Gopal said.
New Jersey residents, if displaced, could vote anywhere in the state, by submitting provisional ballots, French said. There is a problem with that, as voters won’t be able to cast votes for congressional or local candidates, she said.
On Tuesday the Associated Press reported the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is taking Essex County election officials to court over the way special email ballots are being handled.