Mission NJ: Breaking the Back of the Virus, While Shouldering Democratic Elections


As the state battles a deadly virus that killed 27 people in 24 hours, Governor Phil Murphy stands poised


to make a decision about how New Jersey will handle the June Primary elections, gingerly trying to walk a tightrope between health of the body politic and the always embattled and seldom invigorated health of democracy itself.

The governor has ordained a statewide shutdown and daily reminds people to maintain social distancing in order, as he says, “to break the back of the COVID-19 virus,” even as candidates for office prepare to face voters on June 2nd ahead of an historic national election in November. The relationship between the two elections – the process implications of one on the other – has New Jersey a little spooked, too. Any move Murphy makes on Monday will no doubt spark criticism, as people hold fierce views when it comes to voting, the right of every adult citizen in this country.

But New Jerseyans continue to die daily.

To maintain democracy in the midst of a crisis, the county clerks are said to have recommended a vote by mail primary election for New Jersey, and to have offered a consensus view that the election should be delayed by two weeks to get to the early days of summertime. They don’t all agree. Some worry about a slippery slope, with any significant change to the process conceivably playing havoc. Others have expressed the view that the whole event should be scrapped for the sake of good health – biological not political; some of them noting concerns about ballot handling for postal workers. The deadly virus sits on surfaces and could contaminate workers who lack proper protective equipment, while healthcare workers in New Jersey already lack masks and gowns. They’ve looked at options nationwide, and even on the other side of the globe, in Estonia, with its all-digital elections program. Some resistance to VBM elections originates from superintendent of elections offices. Once mail programs activiate, why go back? Who needs them?

A juggling act of democracy against the backdrop of COVID-19 mayhem, the clerks made their recommendations to Murphy, on whom the final decision rests. “[He has a] tough decision on his head,” a clerk told InsiderNJ. “But I give him credit- he is doing his homework. The Bully Governor would have made the decision two weeks ago.”

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37).

At ground zero of the crisis, state senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) said the May 12th elections (which will also contain resecheduled special elections and school board elections, per the governor) will give the state a chance at an all-Vote-by-Mail (VBM) “dress rehearsal.”

One thing she believes is that the primary elections must proceed on schedule – or at least with as little delay as humanly possible.

“Our democracy depends on us being able to hold elections,” she said. “Without a democracy, the rest of this is almost not worthwhile. We live in a free country. I am confident we will be able to pull this off.”

Her staff talked to Bergen County Clerk John Hogan who explained seal protections for VBM envelopes to enhance safety precautions.

It won’t be without some complications. But it has to be done, she said.

A Vietnam veteran who has maintained a brisk work rate at is office through the COVID-19 crisis, state Senator Ronald Rice (D-28) isn’t so sure about an all-VBM election.

“I’m concerned,” he told InsiderNJ.

He fears tampering with the process, and tentatively advocates aggessive social distancing and hygenic

Senator Ronald Rice says that he will not vote on a NJ state budget that doesn't include $140 million in cost savings gained through a marijuana decriminalization and expungement law that eliminates unjust judicial and correctional practices targeting poor, minority and urban residents.
Senator Ronald Rice (D-28).

measures at polling places on election day.

“Why can’t we space people at the polls?” Rice said. “I will be having a conversation with my members, with civil rights leaders.

“I’m not ruling it out exactly,” he added of VBM elections. “I just don’t believe it’s the right thing to do for the process in the future. I can smell it coming. You open the doors for a lot of fraud when you open the door for vote by mail only. I’m going to have a conference call. I think it’s important we know what happens to us as it relates to our votes.

“We don’t want disenfranchised voters,” he added.

His colleague on the other side of the aisle, state Senator Robert Singer (R-30) agrees with Weinberg and Rice that the state needs to move forward with scheduled elections.

He supports a VBM model.

As senators in Trenton debate revisions to the state's medical marijuana program, Senator Robert Singer sends the bill back to the floor in hopes of removing a provision that would charge sales tax. The initiative failed and Singer, along with other senators, voted for the bill, saying the changes will help many people, even if it's not perfect.

“We have to have the elections; it’s part of our tradition,” he said, applauding early efforts by the Ocean County Board of Elections to secure a vote by mail system for the sprrawling South Jersey County he serves.

“I understand too when the mail is dropped off the mail can be sprayed [to eliminate coronavirus contamination],” said the veteran senator. “We do not want to put mail carriers at risk. I think it can be done.

“When you start moving dates, it gets fuzzy,” Singer added.  “I would certainly like to see it move forward [on June 2nd].”

State Senator Paul Sarlo (D-36) agrees. Although vocal county clerks are said to favor a June 16th or even June 23rd election day swap date, Sarlo is leery of moving around elections.

“You stay the course,” he told InsiderNJ.  “It’s premature to postpone a primary election.”

Sarlo, right, and Smith.
Sarlo, right, and Smith.

Murphy has a Monday courtesy deadline. After the filing deadline (3/30) you go through the the challenges, one clerk explained. The current law (amended) says they have a drawing on Thursday, 4/9- ballot then goes to printer, they need to proof, print and the stuff and mail, under the new amended law that date is 4/24. “…They are talking about possibly sending everybody a ballot (postage paid). You need to get prepared.” If they go all-VBM ballot it drastically increases the production of VBMs, on an increasingly short runway, with skeleton staffing in some cases.

Sarlo said it’s worth the wait.

“Wait through April or by the end of April and then make that determination,” said the veteran South Bergen senator. “But right now, you move ahead. You don’t want to create that precedent of moving elections every time there’s a disaster. You have to be careful. That said, if we come the end of April if we haven’t flattened the curve, we adjust as necessary.”

Democrats also fear the political consequences nationally if they blink. If New Jersey doesn’t handle the process correctly, or flinches in the face of the crisis, sacrificing democracy for the sake of greater social distancing security, President Donald J. Trump could summon a case for catastrophic circumstances derailing the federal election, or so runs the blue state worry, even if Trump may lack the option constitutionally.

Still, at the moment, on Murphy’s shoulders in addition to the perilous health of the state, is the health of the state’s elections, and whether he can resolve both of those challenges simultaneously is a delicate and essential test befalling only those who resolve – even in the worst, most trying times – to protect representive democracy.

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