When Superstorm Sandy wiped out a good chunk of the New Jersey shore just prior to the presidential elections last November, Gov. Chris Christie’s administration issued a directive allowing displaced citizens and first responders to vote electronically. Casting an email or fax vote may seem easy enough, but for some citizens and county election offices, the process wasn’t a walk in the park.
Technology wasn’t a problem -- procedures for voting electronically were already established so that military members and other overseas personnel could receive their ballots and vote by email. But preparing to receive votes from the general populace took around-the-clock efforts from county election staff already battered by the effects of Sandy.
While the top of the ballots that contained federal election choices was already completed because of overseas voters, New Jersey counties had to extend those ballots to include the local races for each voter, which took time. But once that was done, sending out ballots and then qualifying people to vote electronically was a big challenge.
Hudson County Clerk Barbara Netchert explained the biggest issue was that when voters heard the word “email” many who were unaffected by the storm ignored the phrase “displaced by Sandy” and tried to vote electronically instead of going to the polls like normal.
“We were inundated,” Netchert said. “My people could not … keep up with the amount of requests coming into our mailbox. People were then making the decision to email other people within the system just to make sure that it got here. So we had a lot of duplicates and it was just a daunting task.”
Residents and emergency workers “displaced” by Hurricane Sandy could request an application by email or download one off a county’s website. The completed form could be scanned, emailed or faxed to the county elections office. Those applications were reviewed by county election office workers, who had to verify the applicant as an eligible voter.
Once verified, the applicant would receive a ballot by email or fax, with specific instructions on how and when to return it so that their vote would be counted. In just a few days’ time, thousands of voting applications hit the inboxes and offices in various counties. Hudson County received 2,700 applications, while Passaic County handled around 2,000 requests from its own citizens.
Overall, Hudson County processed 1,700 of the 2,700 applications it received, but only 500 people returned accepted ballots. In Passaic County, workers processed approximately 550 out of 2,000, but received just 188 completed ballots.
(Requests for information on the overall number of accepted and tallied email and fax ballots from the state of New Jersey were not returned.)
Passaic County Clerk Kristin Corrado said the low return was likely a result of many non-registered voters thinking they could register and vote at the same time. She added that the situation happened so quickly there just wasn’t time to prepare and communicate as effectively with people as she would have liked.
Netchert agreed. She said her office regretted not having enough time to reach out to those people who submitted a ballot request but ended up not getting one because they didn’t qualify.
“We were so overwhelmed with the email ballot requests coming in, that we had no time when a voter was rejected to stop and go back and email that person and let them know why they weren’t getting a ballot,” Netchert said.
Despite the overall low turnout, Corrado and Netchert believe electronic voting -- by email or another online method -- could work effectively during non-emergency situations in the future. Both said younger voters are pushing for doing things digitally and over time, it will inevitably happen. Last year, California ran a one-month experiment with an online voter registration system that netted more than a half-million new voters. Residents under the age of 25 accounted for 30 percent of all online registrants.
Corrado explained that right now, a person has to be “committed” to vote by email, because the document must be signed, scanned and returned. For some, it’s easier to just head down to a polling place. But that won’t always be the case, as people who are growing up with technology and information at their fingertips may want the convenience of email voting.
For that to happen however, the two county clerks agreed that security would have to be beefed up to ensure the integrity of the process, including the possible inclusion of assigned personal identification numbers.
Netchert admitted that email voting could be harder to secure, but felt times have changed and many young people today are not as concerned about secrecy. They choose to wear their vote on their sleeves, as opposed to older generations that valued secrecy in how they voted.
“Times have changed,” Netchert said. “It’s not like that any more. It’s more modern day politics and people just want to know they can cast a vote.”
This story was originally published on GOVERNING.com
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.