Nov 3, 2009 4 Comments ›› Pat Dollard
By JOHN FUND
The race for governor in New Jersey is so close in final polls that it may well end up in a recount — the 1981 election did and was decided by less than 1,800 votes. If there is a recount, you can bet disputes about absentee ballots will loom large. Moreover, if serious allegations of fraud emerge, you can also expect less-than-vigorous investigation by the Obama Justice Department — which showed just how seriously it takes such allegations when it walked away from an open-and-shut voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia earlier this year.
Plenty of reasons exist for suspecting absentee fraud may play a significant role in tomorrow’s Garden State contests. Groups associated with Acorn in neighboring Pennsylvania and New York appear to have moved into the state. An independent candidate for mayor in Camden has already leveled charges that voter fraud is occurring in his city. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party in New Jersey is taking advantage of a new loosely written vote-by-mail law to pressure county clerks not to vigorously use signature checks to evaluate the authenticity of absentee ballots, the only verification procedure allowed.
The state has received a flood of 180,000 absentee ballot requests. On some 3,000 forms the signature doesn’t match the one on file with county clerks. Yet citing concerns that voters would be disenfranchised, Democratic Party lawyer Paul Josephson wrote New Jersey’s secretary of state asking her “to instruct County Clerks not to deny applications on the basis of signature comparison alone.” Mr. Josephson maintained that county clerks “may be overworked and are likely not trained in handwriting analysis” and insisted that voters with suspect applications should be allowed to cast provisional ballots. Those ballots, of course, would then provide a pool of votes that would be subject to litigation in any recount, with the occupant of New Jersey’s highest office determined by Florida 2000-style scrutiny of ballot applications.
Absentee voter fraud is in danger of becoming a hardy perennial in New Jersey. Atlantic City Councilman Marty Small and 13 campaign workers were indicted in September on charges of conspiring to commit election fraud using absentee ballots. One worker pleaded guilty last month. In Newark, five campaign workers were indicted in August on charges involving absentee ballot fraud.
Victor Negron, a campaign adviser for independent mayoral candidate Roberto Feliz, a former director of Camden’s public works department, says he’s shocked that more than fifteen times the normal number of voters are casting absentee ballots in Camden this year. In the 2005, when the city’s voters voted for both governor and mayor on the same day, only 200 absentee ballots were cast. This year, some 3,700 have already been received. At least four voters have approached the Feliz campaign to complain that an absentee ballot was sent to them without their permission or cast for them without their understanding the documents they were signing. I spoke with Uremia Rojas who reports that “a man with a clipboard knocked on my door and had me sign something so I could vote by mail. I was skeptical but signed and got a ballot. I never really wanted one.” Says Mr. Negron: “We believe this to be underhanded and a possibly illegal strategy by the Democratic Party to undermine the civil rights of the residents of Camden.”
There are additional reports from Camden that Hispanic voters have been misled into voting absentee ballots. So-called bearers who are allowed to collect and carry absentee ballots are said to have encouraged voters to fill out applications for absentee ballots. A few days later, the bearers reportedly return with the actual ballots, which they offer “assistance” in filling out.
Authorities in nearby Philadelphia know about such scams. In one infamous case, a key 1993 race that determined which party would control the Pennsylvania state senate was thrown out by a federal judge after massive evidence that hundreds of voters had been pressured into casting improper absentee ballots. Voters were told by “bearers” that it was all part of “la nueva forma de votar” — the new way to vote. Local politicos tell me Philly operatives associated in the past with Acorn may now be advising their Jersey cousins on how to perform such vote harvesting.
Elsewhere, an investigation is being conducted into a report that people wearing Acorn T-shirts entered an East Orange hospital near Newark carrying blank absentee ballots and left with completed ballots. New Jersey law allows anyone to pick up an absentee ballot for someone else — these are called messenger ballots.
After repeated election-related scandals, Acorn has become toxic for many candidates who once relied on the group. But Acorn’s longtime allies, the Service Employee International Union and New York’s Working Families Party, have both moved into New Jersey. Peter Colavito, Acorn’s former political director in New York and a board member of the Working Families Party, is now the political director of SEIU Local 32BJ, which is heavily involved in New Jersey’s election. Nationally, the SEIU is a political powerhouse with White House visitor’s logs showing that Andrew Stern, its national head, visited 22 times in the first six months of the Obama White House — more than any other person. “Andrew Stern practically lives at the White House,” notes Politico.com.
The Working Families Party, which is co-chaired by Acorn head Bertha Lewis, is no stranger to absentee ballot fraud. A special prosecutor in Troy, N.Y. is investigating New York’s September primary, in which at least 38 ballots cast for Working Families Party candidates were thrown out as forged or fraudulent. New York Judge Michael Lynch found “significant election law violations that have compromised the rights of numerous voters and the integrity of the ballot process.”
Nor is in-person fraud at the polls unknown in New Jersey. In 2007, a former Hoboken zoning board president noticed a group of men outside a polling place being given index cards by two people. One of the loiterers later tried to vote in the name of a voter who had moved out of the area. When challenged by the former zoning board president, he ran out of the building and was caught. He later admitted to police he was part of a group from a homeless shelter who had been paid $10 each to vote using the names of other people.
That’s one reason ElectionJournal.org will be deploying observers with cameras around New Jersey to hunt for irregularities. The Web site hit gold last year when its cameras captured footage of two members of the New Black Panther Party in black combat boots and black uniforms blocking the door of a Philadelphia polling place. One was brandishing a large police-style nightstick and hurling racial epithets at voters.
The Bush Justice Department filed a civil-rights lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party and the two individuals. When none of the defendants answered the lawsuit, a federal court rendered a default judgment against the defendants. But last May, Attorney General Eric Holder dropped charges against the party and the two individual defendants. Another man was given the mild sanction of being barred from displaying a weapon near a polling place for three years. To groups that may be contemplating vote fraud in tomorrow’s races, such an outcome will hardly be seen as a big deterrent.