A coalition of New Jersey groups that includes the League of Women Voters, the NAACP and the Institute for Social Justice have sued the state in a bid to limit the number of people whose mail-in ballots get rejected in the July 7 primary.

In a typical election, about 1% of mail-in ballots are rejected. But voting-rights groups say it could be much higher in the primary if hundreds of thousands vote that way for the first time and risk flunking the signature match that is required.

Signatures on mailed-in ballots are compared with those on file – and if they don’t match, they’re rejected. Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters, said the problem is that voters aren’t give a chance to say, yes, that vote’s really from me.

“It’s an easy fix. We just want to make sure that it’s in place prior to the primary to make sure that voters aren’t disenfranchised because of penmanship,” Burns said.

In other states, Burns said, people are promptly informed that their ballot was rejected so that they have a chance to say it’s legitimate – or "cure" it. New Jersey notifies people, but often not until long after the fact and without a way to fix it.

Burns said that when people sign in at a polling place to vote, they get a glance at what their signature looked like when they registered – often when they’re young and being more formal because it’s on a government application. Compare that to the near-scribble many adults use in everyday life.

“I wouldn’t do that on this ballot, and it’s likely my signature would look nothing like my signature did,” Burns said. “So we have to make sure that safeguards are in place in order for these systems to work well.”

The federal lawsuit was filed May 18 by the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, Campaign Legal Center, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and Kaufman Lieb Lebowitz & Frick LLP. The plaintiffs also include William Riggs, a 78-year-old Middlesex County resident whose hand tremors brought on by Parkinson’s disease make it virtually impossible for him to sign his name consistently.

The May 12 elections held in some places in New Jersey were done entirely by mail.

Nearly 20% of the vote-by-mail ballots cast in Paterson’s election were rejected. Some could have been because of attempted fraud, which is now under investigation. But more than 1,200 were turned down because of a signature mismatch – including ones cast by Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly and his family.

Gov. Phil Murphy says the state is learning and that the July primary will include in-person polling locations in every municipality, in addition to sending mail-in ballots to all Democrats and Republicans.

“We’re traveling a journey that none of us have ever traveled before,” Murphy said. “Every vote counting is a sacred element of our democracy, and learning from where it may have fallen down to some extent is part of the process.”

A Senate committee plans to vote on a bill Monday that would allow people to hand-deliver ballots to their municipal clerk, to avoid a potentially unreliable Postal Service. It would also count properly postmarked votes that arrive up to six days after an election, rather than two.

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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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