[The following commentary appeared in the current issue of the triCityNews. We rarely put the content of the paper on-line, but in this case it's in the public interest to do so. Procedures were not followed with a large number of ballots in Asbury in the last council election — and that should never happen again.]
ASBURY PARK – Last week, I blasted the judge in the Asbury ballot case for simply throwing out the election challenge of the A-Team council candidates. That slate wants 327 disqualified ballots opened, which could change the results of the May 14 election with two, if not three, A-Team candidates winning.
So I did what the judge should do — and what an appeals court will tell him to do — I took a look at the ballots myself to determine what actually happened with them. [I filed an Open Public Records Act request to get access.]
Look, I’m vocally in favor of the A-Team having their day in court if they want it. But what I saw with my inspection of the ballot documents were substantial and unacceptable violations of procedure by the A-Team campaign. [The A-Team were candidates Jim Keady, Duanne Small, Daniel Harris III, Remond Palmer and Nora Hyland.]
Take your time and follow this story. It’s an important one. For the A-Team should back off their election challenge and appeal, and acknowledge they made substantive procedural errors. More importantly, this should never be repeated in future elections.
One more thing. I didn’t ask A-Team candidates to comment for this article because I don’t want them to get trapped into saying something without considerable thought. I want them to digest my findings, talk to their lawyers and among themselves and decide what to do. And if they think I’m wrong, this is a two week issue which gives them plenty of time to submit a detailed response. I’m also happy to discuss my findings with any of the A-Team candidates, or their lawyers, so they understand what happened. What I’m doing here is undertaken in the most constructive way toward everyone.
Of course, the only way I’m going to get anyone’s attention is to publish this article. That’s why you’re reading it.
The 327 disputed ballots in the election challenge are vote by mail [VBM] ballots — pretty much the same as absentee ballots.
Mostly from January through March, the A-Team collected signed and dated applications from voters for these VBM ballots. Yet later on — often weeks later — A-Team supporters added additional information to the applications before giving them to the county clerk. Even worse, this additional information was backdated to the date the voter initially filled out the application.
And this didn’t happen a couple times. I counted it on approximately 165 of the 327 unopened ballots in dispute. Nor was this on a technical, insignificant issue. The information added later on, and backdated, was to designate A-Team supporters to act as messengers to bring the VBM ballot to the voter.
I’ll repeat: This was to allow A-Team supporters to get the VBM ballots from the county clerk and bring them to the voters. Or, as I like to say, bring the voting booth to the voters — because a VBM ballot is exactly that.
I’ll get into more technical details at the end of this article to back up these assertions. But those 165 ballots should absolutely not be counted. For the A-Team committed violations of the procedures that are designed to protect the system against fraud and coercion. You just can’t ignore those rules.
A messenger bringing a VBM ballot to a voter should be someone clearly designated by that voter. Not someone added later to a ballot application by a campaign — with that information then backdated!
Even if a voter consented to this arrangement — partially filling out the application and letting anyone from the A-Team later complete it and bring them a ballot — it doesn’t matter. The A-Team can’t decide that state law doesn’t apply to them, nor can a voter.
By the way, I do believe a lot of A-Team supporters requesting these ballots were OK with this arrangement. It still doesn’t matter — even if every voter was cool with it. These laws must be followed everywhere so voter fraud and coercion occur nowhere. You can’t set a precedent here for others to ignore these rules.
Of course, you don’t want to disenfranchise a voter over a technical or minor problem. But that’s not this situation. Not at all. This is serious and substantive. The best thing the A-Team candidates can now do is own up to the error, drop the appeal of the ballot challenge and move on to the next election.
For the A-Team can’t win without these procedurally-tainted ballots. And they should not be counted. Taking them away leaves only 162 unopened ballots, and A-Team candidates are about 175 votes away from getting a seat.
Sure, I opposed the A-Team in the election. I said they were just way too risky to take a majority. Still feel that way. But I’ve gotten to like some of their candidates, particularly Duanne Small, who has demonstrated a lot of potential to many people. He recently did a great job on the city’s charter study commission which is now proposing changes to our form of government. I would have liked to see Small win a seat as a result of this election challenge, if the A-Team had a good case.
But they have a bad case. A very bad case. So here’s my advice to them: Don’t make any bullshit excuses here. Drop the case. Accept responsibility. Say that there were procedural problems discovered in your campaign that will not happen again if any of you run in the future.
That would demonstrate maturity, leadership and accountability. That’s the right move. Don’t blame it on anyone else.
Most likely, voters will approve changes to Asbury’s form of government in November, which means elections in November, 2014 — less than a year and a half away. Even if the A-Team are successful on their appeal, and somehow confound me and win this case, where are they going? That will take a few months, and a new election will be right around the corner.
Otherwise, if they proceed with the appeal and the case is sent back down for a trial — which ironically it should be — everyone has got to oppose them on this messenger ballot issue. And I mean everyone in the city. They cannot be allowed to just ignore the rules and have their campaign workers pick up and deliver hundreds of ballots to voters. It’s insane. It’s got to stop. And they should say it will.
OK, time to get into the details of what I saw in Freehold. I also plan to get this article to everyone involved with the election challenge, and elections in Asbury Park in general, so what happened here is not repeated.
So this is my report on the 165 procedurally-tainted VBM ballots that should remain uncounted, based on what I saw in Freehold with the VBM applications. Here’s what happened:
A voter would fill out the VBM application and sign their name at the top where you put basic information and request a ballot. They’d then date it. This pretty much occurred in January, February and March.
But then, further down on the application, the voter would leave blank the section authorizing a messenger to bring them a ballot, as well as listing the messenger’s name, address and date of birth. However, below that blank messenger information, the voter would sign his name and also date it.
Later on — I believe in early April when the ballots were printed and ready to be picked-up — an A-Team supporter would take an application and fill in the information to designate themselves the messenger above the voter’s prior signature.
Now that’s what I call assisting with an application!
And when you assist, you must fill out the section of the VBM application for assistor information — which these messengers did! However, the date they signed as an assistor was backdated to match the date the voter signed the application.
How do I know this happened? Two reasons.
First, it is virtually impossible for the messengers to have been out in the field throughout January, February and March with the 165 voters at the exact times those voters filled out their VBM applications. No one is that organized. The messengers filled in the information later, and backdated it. I see no other way it could have been done. By the way, a messenger can handle no more than 10 ballots. So at least 17 messengers were involved with the disputed 165 ballots. I didn’t tabulate the exact number of messengers involved. But it was likely much higher than 17 with these 165 ballots, as 40 messengers eventually picked up ballots with the county clerk to deliver to voters.
Second, the county clerk shut-down the A-Team messenger operation in mid-April when she required messengers to fill out affidavits — statements made under oath — before they took any more VBM ballots to voters. Those affidavits stated that messengers were following the law and asking them to represent they were doing certain things properly. After that, few new requests came in for ballots by messengers to deliver to voters.
Yet in the second half of April — after the messenger operation was shut down with those affidavits — approximately 71 more VBM applications came into Freehold where voters had signed and dated the messenger section, but left the messenger information blank. It’s fair to assume if the messenger ballot operation wasn’t shut down, messengers would have completed those applications, backdated them and brought those voters a ballot. Those extra 71 VBM applications demonstrate how voters would partially complete the application — with messengers later doing the rest. In this case, the messengers didn’t do the rest because the A-Team stopped using messengers because of the affidavits.[What happened with those 71 applications is that the county clerk used the usual procedure to send those voters a ballot by mail. Yet those 71 ballots were still disqualified for other issues.]
OK, I purposely got technical here, which is the only way to really explain this thing. But A-Team campaign operatives know what I’m talking about. So will the A-Team candidates when they read this. Everyone involved in the election challenge should take out a VBM application and follow along with this story. They’ll see.
If they don’t, any lawyers or parties in the election challenge can call me and I’ll explain it to them. Again, that can be the A-Team’s lawyer, A-Team candidates or anyone else. I don’t care.
Because this matter should be put to rest, the election results accepted, responsibility for the procedural errors taken — and every one should move on to the next elections which are likely next year. I don’t think I can say it any nicer than that.
Dan Jacobson is the publisher of the triCityNews newspaper, as well as asburyoverheard.com, asburyparksun.com and asburyanchor.com.