By: Alyssa Kaiser
My experience in voting with an absentee ballot in New Jersey in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, as well as the 2017 gubernatorial election, alerted my attention to flaws in the system. As an active voter, these experiences have left me to wonder if absentee voting is worth it. I am thankful that my home state of New Jersey has an absentee ballot system that allows me to vote as a New Jerseyite even though I go to school in Virginia. Although New Jersey’s absentee ballot rules are arguably less stringent than other states, I learned the hard way that absentee voting can be difficult.
All states have different requirements in regard to absentee voting, if they offer it at all. The New Jersey Vote By Mail requirements allow any registered New Jersey voter to apply for an absentee ballot. This is less restrictive than states like Virginia, where I am currently living while in school. Virginia places restrictions on who may qualify to vote absentee, but when comparing the categories that trigger use of an absentee ballot, it does not seem hard to qualify. In states that allow absentee voting, in general, a person must fill out a form requesting an absentee ballot and either return it in person or provide postage and mail it back to the local Election Office. After this, a voter receives a ballot back in the mail, must provide postage, and then mail the ballot back to the local Election Office by the deadline.
The 2012 election was the first in which I was eligible to vote, and I was excited to participate. I requested to vote absentee because I was away from home as a student at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. Although still living in New Jersey at the time, I was registered in Warren County, and therefore would not be able to vote in person at school, as it is in Essex County. Although the absentee ballot process already requires planning to ensure deadlines are met, New Jersey absentee voters faced an additional burden in 2012 due to the effects of Hurricane Sandy.
The storm hit New Jersey on October 29, 2012, with the election on November 6, 2012. Many citizens were left without their homes, and even more were left without power for several weeks. As is the case with many natural disasters, it is hard to anticipate the damage before the storm actually happens. In this case, it was worse. My school announced that it would be closed on Monday and Tuesday in anticipation of the storm and urged us to return to our homes. As a result of packing up quickly, I forgot my absentee ballot at school, so I did not have it with me in Warren County. The storm was so severe and many students were personally affected, so the school remained closed for the rest of the week.
Before returning to school, I did not have power at home. As a result, I was unable to listen to the news or charge my phone. There was no internet or cable, so it was very difficult to get information about what was going on regarding the upcoming election and how I would be able to vote. By the night I got back to school, I needed to return my absentee ballot the following day, or my vote would not count. However, many of the nearest post offices were closed and many postal service locations were not operating or were only picking up from limited locations. In the end, I did locate a pick up location around five miles from my school and walked that distance to submit my vote.
Although Hurricane Sandy provided challenges in voting to many voters displaced from their polling place, the state allowed voting to occur at any polling place due to the special circumstances. This policy did not help absentee voters, however; once you request to vote absentee, you cannot change to voting in person. In this way, the hurricane arguably affected absentee voters as much or even more than in person voters because people were more concerned about securing their basic needs rather than finding an operating post office to mail their ballot.
My experience in the 2016 presidential election was not as challenging as the 2012 election. However, I did need to overnight mail my ballot because I was unable to get to the post office before the weekend of the Tuesday election as a result of my law school schedule. Although I may have been able to get to the post office sooner, since I had to make a trip to the post office, and pay around fifteen dollars to ensure the vote would reach the polling place in time, it would have been easier to go to the polling place once where I was living and not spend any money.
In the 2017 state gubernatorial election, there were also difficulties in voting absentee. Knowing my previous history, I planned to participate in the process early to avoid any additional difficulties. However, the day before I planned to cast my ballot, Warren County Board of Elections sent a post card stating unknown issues were causing the provided return envelope to be sent back to the sender and that voters would need to find another envelope and readdress it before sending their ballot. These additional burdens may seem small, but every speed bump in the voting process is significant. To add to my complaints in the absentee voting process, my ballot was returned to me on the night of the election, when there was nothing I could do to try to make my vote count. In contacting the County Clerk’s office on election night, I was told that the returned ballot errors were due to the Post Office, and not their office’s fault. I reached out to the Warren County Board of Elections to express my concerns and explain my experience, but have yet to hear back from them. I was prevented from participating in an important election in not only New Jersey from the errors of Warren County Board of Elections and the uncertainties in the voting process, but also was unable to participate in an important election in Virginia, where I could have registered to vote in person. I feel as though this is a violation of my fundamental right to vote.
Although absentee voting is supposed to convenience voters, particularly those who may not be able to get to the polling place on election day like students and the elderly, ease has not been my experience. These experiences lead me to wonder whether there is an easier way to vote absentee, especially given the advancements in technology. In the future, I will likely forgo the absentee ballot process and register to vote in person where I am living in the next election.