Judge denies request to count rejected Montclair May election ballots
BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
A judge has dismissed a suit by 15 Montclair residents, including mayoral candidate Renee Baskerville, asking Essex County officials to count and include the votes that were rejected in the township’s mail-in-only municipal election in May.
In the suit, Baskerville asserted that roughly 1,086 ballots in possession of the Essex County Clerk’s Office were never counted and claimed that there were problems that affected the vote tally, including decreased hours and personnel shortages at the post office on May 11 and 12.
The suit sought the recount of all ballots and asked the court to allow voters whose ballots were rejected due to signature problems to “cure” them.
Baskerville said the plaintiffs are still deciding whether they will appeal.
The May 12 election was conducted mail-in-only for the first time ever due to the pandemic. At the time, the cutoff for having a vote counted was 48 hours past election day, and there was no mechanism to “cure” a signature that had been rejected. The main Montclair post office reportedly closed at 3 p.m. on election day, four hours before its scheduled closing time, due to labor shortages connected to the pandemic.
Ballots had to be received by the county within 48 hours of the election and postmarked May 12, and voters were not able to cure rejected signatures, as was allowed in the July primary and will be permitted for the November election.
In the mayoral race, Third Ward Councilman Sean Spiller edged Baskerville by 195 votes. The other five competitive Township Council races — David Cummings ran unopposed in the Fourth Ward — saw margins of victory between 294 and 458 votes.
The complaint, filed May 29, named New Jersey’s chief election officer, Tahesha Way, Essex County Clerk Christopher Durkin, Essex County elections clerk Linda von Nessi and Montclair Township clerk Juliette Lee among the defendants.
According to records from the county clerk’s office, 674 ballots from Montclair were delivered but not counted, either because they were postmarked after May 12 or because they were received after the May 14 deadline. Von Nessi said that 219 ballots were rejected due to signature problems.
According to the county clerk’s records, 60 ballots postmarked May 12 were received by the county after the May 14 deadline: 56 on May 15, two on May 18, and one each on May 20 and May 26.
The remaining 614 were either postmarked after May 12 or had no postmark.
Today, Sept. 11, Judge Thomas Vena dismissed the case and denied the plaintiffs’ request that the votes be counted.
“We were raising legal questions about the integrity of New Jersey’s first-ever, all-mail-in ballot election — a pilot test of an all-mail-in ballot election, amid COVID-19 — the coronavirus — a time during which residents had been ordered by the governor to shelter in place,” Baskerville said.
“The ordered all-mail-in election occurred during the nation’s worst public health crisis and among its worst economic crises, when all Jerseyans were ordered to remain in their homes at all times with few exceptions, setting the stage for a suppressive voting environment.
“But Judge Vena found that the coronavirus environment in which the May 12 Montclair nonpartisan municipal elections took place was not extraordinary or even unusual.”
As with the June primaries, Gov. Phil Murphy will allow for a seven-day return to the post office for the November election.
Voters now have 16 days to cure and update their registered signatures. The primary in July was the first time New Jersey allowed voters to cure signatures that were rejected.
“The governor resolved to adjust the procedure for all of the elections taking place after the May 12 elections to include both mail-in and in-person voting options. And he decided to include special provisions for protecting the franchise of traditionally underrepresented residents, e.g., disabled voters, low-income voters, Black and brown voters. These responsive remedial actions assist in highlighting some of the flaws of the process in place on May 12,” Baskerville said.