By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

When voters were asked in a referendum last November if Montclair should start electing school board members — instead of picking them through mayoral appointment — nearly 15,000 people showed up to the polls or mailed-in ballots to make their voices heard. 

But on Tuesday, March 8, when Montclair residents were, for the first time ever, given the chance to vote on candidates, only about a third as many cast ballots — picking Phaedra Dunn and Melanie Deysher from a crowded field of nine candidates for two newly created seats in a special election. 

Turnout wasn’t quite as low as it might have looked with a quick glance at the county’s election results site Tuesday night. At that point, mail-in ballots weren’t yet reflected. Results from one voting district, 4-2, also hadn’t yet been processed, and still hadn’t as of Thursday. County Clerk Chris Durkin said because those results didn’t come in on election night, they won’t be made available until after a court order allows officials to open up the machine.

And the official, on-the-books figure of 35,011 registered voters in Montclair is almost certainly higher than the amount of people old enough to vote in Montclair, according to the 2020 Census, which puts the 18-and-over population somewhere under 31,000. That’s because voters aren’t taken off the rolls unless the county is informed they’ve died, or until election mail to their addresses stops being accepted and then they stop taking part in two federal elections, Durkin said.

By Thursday, county officials had counted 4,440 ballots. Not yet accounting for district 4-2 or remaining mail-ins (they could be postmarked as late as election day), that’s a turnout of about 12.6% of all registered voters on record. It’s still fewer than half as many people turned out for the May 2020 municipal elections, though the figure will edge up slightly as the last votes are counted. (Note: This post has been updated; an earlier version incorrectly listed the number of ballots counted at that time in Montclair, instead using the figure for ballots counted county-wide, which additionally included a race in Essex Fells)

“Whatever you might say about the four or five thousand people who took the time to choose our next BOE members, it's four or five thousand times as many as the one dude who got to choose last time,” said Erik D’Amato, co-chair of Vote Montclair — the group that successfully petitioned to get November’s referendum on the ballot in the first place, and the group that endorsed Dunn and Deysher.

Carmel Loughman, communications committee chair for the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area, said Wednesday she is pleased by the high number of candidates, but that the crowded field made the decision hard for voters. 

“There were so many candidates that it took time to really understand the differences among them, and people may not have been willing to do that homework,” Loughman said. “Not really knowing the candidates might make one say, ‘I can’t vote.’”

But is this the norm?

The open question is whether Montclair should expect better turnout going forward. Elections for three board seats will be held each November, when other elections for state and federal offices tend to draw more people to the polls. Candidates will have more time to campaign, as well — nominating petitions for the March race were due in late January, for an off-cycle vote to fill two seats created as Montclair changed from a Type I district with a seven-member board to a Type II district with a nine-member board.

The League of Women Voters had taken a position against having an elected board, arguing in part low turnout could lead to candidates “whose concern may be slashing the budget, busing, charter schools, grouping, etc,” in an October guest column for Montclair Local. “With typical voter turnout at less than 10%, a single-issue candidate could win with very few votes.”

The worry over low turnout was repeated in several letters to the paper, by writers who said just a handful of people would wind up choosing candidates in races that affect the entire township. Councilman David Cummings, in another guest column for Montclair Local, warned of the same. He also said he was concerned there often wouldn’t be enough qualified candidates willing to run. Cummings hasn’t yet answered an email message from Montclair Local sent Wednesday seeking comment on the race.

“One of the most common refrains I heard from folks was that they were overwhelmed by an abundance of good choices in this election,” Councilman Peter Yacobellis, who’d favored an elected board, said. “I think that's a good thing.”

Also a concern for opponents of an elected board: that special interests, backing their favored candidates, could steamroll their opposition. Montclair has already seen big money in its municipal elections, including large contributions to Mayor Sean Spiller from the New Jersey Education Association, the statewide teachers union of which he’s now president (Spiller’s role heading a teachers union sometimes at odds with the school board had been a factor for many who advocated doing away with mayoral appointment of board members). 

Vote Montclair itself endorsed Dunn and Deysher in this election — an association that drew criticism from some vocal participants of local community Facebook groups, speculating whether the organization was the “new machine.” Most airing that concern were careful to say they weren’t criticizing Dunn and Deysher specifically. 

While the quality and commitment of the candidates was impressive, the low vote count made apparent how easy it is for one group to have a large impact, Peter Braley, a longtime resident of Montclair with two children who’ve gone through or remain in the school system, told Montclair Local Wednesday. 

Melanie Deysher, second from right, with her family, from left, Matt, Peter, Luke and Ben Horrigan on election night, March 8, 2022. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
Melanie Deysher, second from right, with her family, from left, Matt, Peter, Luke and Ben Horrigan on election night, March 8, 2022. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
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“Democracy is only a concept that works when a significant number of voters educate themselves and participate in the process,” Braley, who represented the League of Women Voters’ position in favor of a mayor-appointed board at a forum hosted by Montclair Local last fall, said. “I do not have any issue with the outcome of this particular election, but I am dismayed at the lack of participation and continue to be concerned about how this process will be beneficial to our schools and kids in the future.”

Vote Montclair spent $623.57 on Facebook ads for the two candidates, matching a similar amount the candidates themselves spent on yard signs, according to a statement by D’Amato and fellow Vote Montclair co-chair Sergio Gonzalez, posted Wednesday on the Vote Montclair website. In addition to the funding, Vote Montclair members donated hours of their time coordinating, doing outreach and other services for the candidates, according to the group.

D’Amato and Gonzalez said the group felt it was important to not walk away after the referendum passed. They wanted to ensure “a minimum of two viable candidates free from any financial or patronage conflicts, and who were laser-focused on the needs of our students,” according to their statement.

They acknowledged the criticism that Vote Montclair was a political machine, but argued “machines are run by people who are in the business of government and elections, rather than volunteers motivated only by a desire to elect people they agree with, and trust,”  

In the November election, Vote Montclair will step back from the role of campaign manager and pivot to focusing on local voting rights, participation and government accountability, the statement says.

The organization will do “something in the space between staying totally neutral and ‘campaign managing,’” D’Amato said Thursday. 

Deysher said Thursday she is “very pleased” Montclair has the opportunity to vote for board candidates. But she said there has been a mixed response to her election.

“I am disappointed that, on International Women’s Day (March 8, election day) no less, there are folks trying to delegitimize the two women who won,” Deysher said. She said she hoped heading into November’s election, “the importance of voting in all local elections will be highlighted.”

‘Our voices were heard’

Yvonne Bouknight waits for election results with friends and family during a watch party at Cafe Moso on March 8, 2022. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
Yvonne Bouknight waits for election results with friends and family during a watch party at Cafe Moso on March 8, 2022. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
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Yvonne Bouknight, who came in third among the nine candidates, said she believed that even with “only a small percentage of our community casting their vote, I believe our voices were heard loud and clear.”

“This election process allowed us to speak openly and honestly about issues brought forth by the community, who as a whole were enlightened by our thoughtful and honest insights during the forums and responses written on several platforms,” she wrote in an email to Montclair Local. 

George Simpson, another of the candidates, said that while many may wish the turnout had been higher, it was higher than in many mayor elections he’d seen.

“If we really care about increasing voter participation, then we need to move all our elections to November, when people are paying attention,” he said. Montclair municipal elections are held in the spring, once every four years.

Jennette Williams — who put her role as education director of the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area on hold during the campaign, but plans to return to it now that the election is over — said she was “encouraged by the inquisitiveness, genuine interest, and concerns expressed by our community” — and said she’d “propel that information forward in my next campaign and invite greater voter participation.”

Also running in Tuesday’s race were Jerold Freier, Holly Shaw, Noah Gale, and Lauren Q. Griffin.

The low turnout in this election wasn’t a surprise, Gonzalez told Montclair Local this week — off-cycle elections usually have low turnout. It’s part of the reason the group is advocating for moving municipal elections to November, he said.

“Poor turnout is not our expectation moving forward,” Gonzalez said. “It is not indicative of future Board Elections since they will be held in November as designed through the referendum.”

It remains to be seen where Montclair’s final turnout number for this race lands. The County Clerk’s Office hasn’t yet returned a message asking how many mail-in ballots it had yet received (the county had tabulated 2,513 mail-in votes or about 29% of all votes cast by Thursday afternoon, but each ballot could contain up to two votes). The county mailed 5,745 ballots to Montclair voters, Durkin has said.

Dunn and Deysher will each serve a term of one year and nine months before their seats will join a cycle in which three board members will be elected every November. Their seats will be up for election in November of 2023 along with the one currently held by Allison Silverstein; the next terms for those seats would start in January 2024. 

On Nov. 8, Montclair will elect candidates to fill the three board seats currently held by board President Latifah Jannah, Vice President Priscilla Church and Monk Inyang. Inyang was chosen by the board in January to fill the seat of the late Dr. Alfred Davis Jr., who died Dec. 12 at the age of 65. The terms for those seats will begin in January 2023. The deadline to file petitions for the Nov. 8 election is July 25.