Parties Reach Agreement in New Jersey Lawsuit Establishing Fair Ballot Signature Match Process for July 7 Primary Election
Agreement Filed With District Court for Approval
NEWARK—Late Tuesday, parties in LWV New Jersey v. Way reached an agreement establishing a notice and cure process for mail-in and provisional ballots in New Jersey for the July 7 primary election. If the U.S. District Court of New Jersey accepts the agreement, voters who cast mail-in and provisional ballots in the state’s July 7 primary election will be notified of ballot issues and given the opportunity to fix them in time for their votes to be counted. As this agreement only applies to the July 7 primary, the case will continue until a permanent resolution is reached.
“This agreement is a significant win for New Jersey voters, and we are glad that Secretary of State Way understood that it was critical to provide a fix to New Jersey’s egregious ballot signature match process ahead of the primary election,” said Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “We are hopeful the judge will accept our agreement so that all voters, especially disabled, elderly, and language minority voters, will be able to cast their mail-in ballots safely and with confidence, knowing that their votes won’t be rejected for signature issues without remedy or recourse.”
As New Jersey continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Phil Murphy announced last month that for the July 7 primary, mail-in ballots will automatically be sent to the state’s active Republican and Democratic voters, with applications for mail-in ballots sent to unaffiliated and inactive registered voters. In addition, limited polling places will be set up for in-person voting, which will largely occur by provisional ballot. This means that almost every vote cast in the primary election will be subject to signature match. The expected surge in mail-in and provisional ballots underscores the urgent need for procedural safeguards to assure voters that they can cast their mail-in ballots with confidence.
“It is unacceptable to deprive people of their franchise to vote, particularly using the unproven method of signature matching,” said Richard T. Smith, President of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference. “The rejection of ballots without an opportunity to cure has occurred at the highest rates in New Jersey’s most diverse counties. Once this settlement is approved by the court, we will have fixed the problem for the July 7 primary election, a huge step forward. We will now continue our challenge to make these changes permanent.”
The lawsuit challenges New Jersey’s signature match system, in which mail-in and provisional ballots are only counted if election officials – who are not properly trained in signature matching – determine that a voter’s signature on their ballot “matches” the signature on their ballot application or voter registration form. Under this system, thousands of ballots are rejected each election because of issues related to signature or penmanship issues. Currently, New Jersey voters whose ballots are marked as a mismatch are not given a pre-rejection notice or opportunity to cure any errors. If accepted by the court, this agreement would establish a notice and cure process, potentially saving thousands of ballots from improperly going uncounted.
The League of Women Voters of New Jersey is joined in this case by the NAACP New Jersey State Conference and three individual plaintiffs, including William M. 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. Plaintiffs are represented by Campaign Legal Center, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and Kaufman Lieb Lebowitz & Frick LLP.
“This is a win for New Jersey voters who spoke out and said that they should not have to pass a handwriting test to exercise their constitutional rights,” said Ravi Doshi, senior legal counsel at Campaign Legal Center (CLC). “Reliable mail voting is essential during the ongoing pandemic, so we’re glad the State worked with us to make this timely and important improvement to its mail voting system. But this is just a first step. It is now incumbent on the State to continue improving its mail voting system, and to make permanent the notice and cure provisions that this settlement secures for the July election.”
“The current crisis has exposed deep cracks in our foundation, which are causing earthquakes in Black and Brown communities,” said Ryan P. Haygood, President & CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “Our lawsuit was filed to protect our democracy from those earthquakes, as substantially more voters are expected to cast their ballots by mail and provisionally during this pandemic. Once approved by the court, today’s settlement will be particularly important for Black and Brown voters whose ballots are disproportionately rejected. As part of the settlement, we will continue our challenge until these reforms are made permanent and everyone’s vote in New Jersey counts going forward. This case couldn’t be more important than it is right now, as we confront one of the most consequential elections in a generation.”
“We’re gratified that Secretary Way has agreed to implement fair, common-sense procedures to make sure arbitrary signature-matching doesn’t unfairly disenfranchise New Jersey voters in the upcoming primary,” said David Lebowitz, partner at Kaufman Lieb Lebowitz & Frick LLP. We look forward to pressing the case forward toward a final, permanent fix so that New Jerseyans who vote by mail-in or provisional ballot in November and beyond can have confidence that their ballot will be counted.”
The League of Women Voters envisions a democracy where every person has the desire, the right, the knowledge, and the confidence to participate. We believe in the power of women to create a more perfect democracy.
The New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP is the Garden State based unit of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. Our aim is to eliminate race based discrimination wherever it may be through the lens of our seven game changers; economic sustainability, education, health, public safety/criminal justice, voting rights, youth engagement and environmental justice.
Campaign Legal Center (CLC) advances democracy through law, fighting for every American’s right to participate in the democratic process.
The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice uses a holistic approach to address the racial and social justice issues facing New Jersey’s communities, advocating for systemic reform that is at once transformative, achievable in the state, and replicable in communities across the nation.
Kaufman Lieb Lebowitz & Frick LLP is a New York City-based litigation boutique law firm with a civil rights focus.