This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.
November general election is going to cost millions more than usual, in large part because counties will be automatically mailing ballots, return postage paid, to nearly all of the state’s registered voters.
Among the quantifiable major costs for the general election are an estimated $3.2 million in first-class postage to mail ballots to some 5.73 million active registered voters, according to an NJ Spotlight analysis of voter records.
And there will be an unknown amount in return postage. The cost for 4 million people, about the expected turnout in a presidential election, to mail back their ballots would total about $2.2 million.
The state is also likely to spend at least $525,000 to buy another 105 secure ballot drop-boxes, five more per county, plus installation costs.
But exactly how much more the election will cost is hard to say for a number of reasons, the simplest of which is that the cost of a typical election is unknown, not only in New Jersey, but pretty much everywhere.
No bottom line on U.S. elections
“No one knows how much it costs to run elections in the United States,” states a 2018 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. “For that matter, it’s a rare state that knows how much election administration costs within its own borders due to the complexity of elections and the involvement of several levels of government.”
In New Jersey, as in most states, counties pay for nearly all the costs associated with elections. A major exception is the cost of automatically sending ballots to those who voted by mail in 2016, 2017 or 2018, which the state mandated through laws enacted in August 2018 and August 2019. The little-known but powerful Council on Local Mandates ruled last November to void those laws unless the state paid the cost of mailing those ballots, which lawmakers and Gov. Phil Murphy agreed to do earlier this year.
There are many other costs that don’t get reported, at least on a state level. These include county elections staff, poll workers and other personnel, polling location rentals, printing ballots and poll books and other expenses.
A hybrid election, as Murphy has ordered, will increase some costs, add new costs and reduce others.
Buying more boxes for ballots
Alicia D’Alessandro, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Elections, said the state may buy additional boxes for larger counties to help voters bypass problematic mail delivery to ensure ballots arrive in time to be counted.
“We are encouraging folks to look at alternatives to using the mail to return ballots in the fall,” D’Alessandro said.
There are likely to be additional costs for personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies for election workers and to use at the polling locations — half the usual number in each county — that will be open for those who want to vote in person using a provisional ballot, and to accept mail-in ballots that individuals want to drop off.
Murphy also vowed to “put more equipment, more people on the case, both for the vote by mail, as well as the in-person piece” to process ballots more quickly to ensure that all votes are counted in a more timely fashion. It took more than a month for the state to post the results of the July 7 primary. And a third of counties requested and received an extension for certifying their because they could not meet the state deadline.
To meet federal deadlines in a presidential election year, Murphy has ordered county clerks to send their official results to the Secretary of State by Nov. 23 — 20 days after the election. To make sure they meet that deadline, the law provides for county boards of elections to count ballots on a daily basis until they are done and to begin counting as early as 10 days before polls close, a provision that has proved controversial with some election officials and some Republicans who worry that early returns could leak to campaigns. There is, however, a provision in the law that would make it a third-degree crime for anyone to disclose ballot counts before the close of polls at 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.
Paying poll workers and rent
Because the state is requiring at least half of all polling places to open on Election Day, counties will still have to pay poll workers to staff those locations and pay to rent them. Counties could save by not having to mail out sample ballots, but instead they will have to mail out postcards or letters with each voter’s poll location, should they decide to vote in person, and the locations of the ballot drop boxes in each county, among other information.
Murphy has set aside $15 million from the major federal COVID-19 aid package knows as the CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund to cover added election costs. State officials have said they will reimburse counties for costs they would not have otherwise incurred.
There is also about $17 million in unspent federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funding the state could tap, although it’s unclear how much of that may need to pay for still unreimbursed primary costs.
“The total cost of the primary is not known yet,” D’Alessandro said. “We are still hearing from counties as to how much they spent, how much we need to offset their costs.”
A report the state submitted on July 21 to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission showed it had spent $1.9 million so far of $10.3 million in special HAVA funding from the CARES Act. The lion’s share of that — $1.3 million — was spent on printing and mailing ballots, software, hardware and software, ballot scanners and drop boxes. The state also spent $109,000 on a public-awareness campaign that included videos on social media, radio ads and mobile billboards that traveled the 21 counties, D’Alessandro said. Another $141,000 paid for PPE and $250,000 went to social-distancing signs.