Historic audit of N.J. mail-in election is complete. The results are promising, officials say.
Updated Jan 25, 2021; Posted Jan 25, 2021
By Steve Strunsky and Matt Gray
Mariel Hufnagel said she asked for a recount after losing her bid for Eatontown Borough Council by just 10 votes in November not because she suspected foul play.
Rather, the Democratic challenger said it was because the margin was simply too thin to risk letting what could have been a few chance counting errors defy the will of the people, particularly in an unprecedented election conducted almost entirely via mail-in balloting in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
As it turned out, the recount only confirmed Hufnagel’s defeat. But she accepted the results, after the accuracy of the initial machine tally of the race’s 6,500 mailed-in paper ballots was largely borne out by a recounting of the ballots by hand. And although she was disappointed, her faith in the electoral process was unshaken.
“I believe that our democracy has checks and balances in place, such as a recount, exactly for situations like this,” Hufnagel wrote in an email. “I am sure if the situation was flipped, the Republicans would do the same.”
More than 6.2 million paper ballots were sent to registered voters for Nov. 3 races ranging from school board to president, and 4.4 million were returned and counted.
But despite the extraordinary nature of the mail-in balloting, the Nov. 3 election was certified as accurate by election officials in all 21 New Jersey counties, including the 14 carried by President Joe Biden, the Democratic challenger who was sworn in Wednesday, and the seven by former President Donald Trump, the Republican incumbent.
Non-partisan observers applauded the election for its accuracy and transparency, as well as for keeping voters, poll workers and others safe amid a pandemic that has now taken the lives of more than 20,500 people in New Jersey.
“The ballots also provided an auditable paper record and we are seeing that the vote count is really accurate,” New Jersey League of Women Voters Executive Director Jesse Burns wrote in an email. “Voters can have confidence in the security and accuracy of this election.”
Burns said there were some problems, however, mostly involving the fewer number of polling places that were open as a result of the shift to mail-in voting, which was ordered by Gov. Phil Murphy in August. Some polling places had long lines, some opened late, and others were not fully accessible to voters with disabilities, said Burns, who called for early voting, same-day registration, and electronic poll books in future elections.
To test the accuracy of the machines used to tally the millions of mail-in ballots, Murphy called on each county to conduct post-election audits using a hand-count of a random sampling of ballots totaling 2% of the total number cast.
Typically, county officials recounted batches of ballots from various election districts, and for most of the batches, the hand counts and corresponding machine tallies were found to be perfect matches.
Six counties reported that their hand counts matched machine tallies for the entire 2% sample — meaning thousands of votes — while most other counties reported near-perfect matches, with variations in the vote counts mainly in the single digits.
The counties submitted their certifications to the New Jersey Secretary of State’s office, which posts them online under “Post-election audit results.” Some counties merely included their accuracy figures, while others detailed any discrepancies revealed by the audit.
Some discrepancies were attributed to voters’ merely placing a checkmark or X in the empty ovals next to their candidates’ name, which were meant to be completely filled in, resulting in a “dropped” ballot that was not counted.
But in some counties, election officials said the problem was all but eliminated thanks to scanning technology that flags a ballot the tabulating machine cannot decipher. In such a case, the machine produces a scanned image of the ballot that a bipartisan team of election commissioners can then examine with their own eyes to interpret the voter’s intent, and then record the vote accordingly during the initial tally.
“So, if someone made an X or a checkmark, we would be able to adjudicate it,” said Allan Roth, a Republican board of elections commissioner and secretary in Monmouth County, which uses Dominion Voting Systems technology.
In Gloucester County, human error was blamed for 30 ballots not being fed into a ballot-counting machine.
Even though New Jersey’s election audit law has been in place for more than a decade, the November race was the first time it was actually invoked. That’s because most counties had been using in-person voting machines that don’t generate a physical record of the vote on paper, so there was no way to conduct a statewide hand-count before last November’s race, when the mail-in ballots constituted their own paper trail.
What the recounts revealed
The accuracy of the machine tallies was also underscored by the 14 recounts granted by Superior Court judges around the state. Although races involving recounts were typically decided by razor-thin margins, only two of them — both in Ocean County — changed the outcome.
In one, a tie for a seat on South Toms River Council between Republican Sandford Ross Jr. and Democrat George Rutzler was broken when the recount cut Ross’ total by two votes, giving Rutzler the win, at least for the time being. That case is now in court, and while a judge allowed Rutzler to be sworn in, he can’t be sure he’ll keep the seat before a ruling that’s expected to be issued late in February, said a lawyer for Ross, Matthew Moench.
The other involved a race for two open seats on the Brick school board, in which the original second-place finisher, Jessica Clayton, had appeared to beat out her closest rival by two votes. Clayton lost five votes in the recount, however, and the initial third-place finisher, Michael A. Blandina, picked up 10 votes, producing a flip.
One of November’s more controversial races was a special election for a Paterson City Council 3rd Ward seat, after the results of the regular May non-partisan race were tossed out by a state judge.
The judge ordered that the special election be held after state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal filed criminal voter fraud charges against the initial winner of the May race, Alex Mendez, who was accused of improperly delivering mail-in ballots without signing as their official bearer, among other crimes.
The episode attracted the attention of then-President Donald Trump before the Nov. 3 election, who said it demonstrated that mail-in voting invited fraud. Despite the pending criminal indictment against him, Mendez won the special election, though by just 9 votes and a recount increased that to 13 votes.
Despite the bizarre circumstances surrounding the Paterson race, Passaic County’s board of elections administrator, Kenneth Hirmann, certified that the Nov. 3 machine tally itself was “100% consistent” with the hand-count conducted for the audit.
The biggest snafu of the Nov. 3 election attributable to the mail-in balloting was in Atlantic County, where a judge tossed out the results and ordered a new election in a race for county commissioner, the post formerly known as freeholder. The new election was ordered after the discovery that 554 ballots had been mailed out incorrectly, some with the names of the candidates sent to voters outside the election district, while others sent to voters in the district lacked the candidates’ names.
Success of mail-in ballots still a political debate
Phil Swibinski, a spokesman for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, called the election “an incredible success,” citing a record turnout and the governor’s executive order allowing ballots to be opened and readied for counting 10 days in advance of the machine tabulations on election day.
Swibinski pointed across the Delaware River, where Pennsylvania didn’t allow the same kind of advance preparations, pushing its count well past election day and leading to accusations of election fraud in the presidential race that helped fuel the Jan. 6 raid on the U.S. Capitol.
“New Jersey really had a lot of foresight in realizing that having the mail-in ballots counted early really made things run a lot smoother,” Swibinski said.
The state Republican party, on the other hand, reiterated GOP assertions ahead of the election that mail-in balloting was “a mistake.” The executive director of the Republican State Committee, Phil Valenziano, cited the races in Paterson and Atlantic County, as well as a county commissioner’s race in Mercer, as examples of mail-in balloting gone awry.
In the Mercer County race, a Democratic incumbent, Commissioner Samuel T. Frisby, is under investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office, after he delivered three ballots for a family grieving the death of its patriarch, including one that had been filled out by the man who had just died.
Back in Eatontown, where a recount confirmed council candidate Mariel Hufnagel’s loss, the winning Republican incumbent, Councilman Mark Regan Jr., said his Democratic challenger was probably right when she suggested he would have asked for a follow-up count had the initial tally gone the other way. (The recount narrowed Regan’s margin of victory by 4 votes, but preserved his win nonetheless.)
“I certainly would have considered requesting a recount,” Regan said in an email. “However, I am confident in the process and that the will of the people was recognized. I look forward to serving the residents of Eatontown for three more years.”