State of Elections

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Tag: New Jersey

New Jersey 2016: Election Watchdog, Lacking Quorum, Has Bark But No Bite

By: Ian Cummings

In New Jersey, this year’s state and local elections may forgo monitoring or oversight with any enforcement power if co-branch – and personal – politics between the state’s governor and state legislative leaders continues. The Election Law Enforcement Commission, a state agency tasked to safeguard election integrity by regulating campaign finance reports, lobbying,  play-to-play, and political fundraising rules, has been without a quorum since May. The four-person body has three-quarters of its commissioners’ seats vacant, with only one, its chairman, in office. The commission, which traditionally splits evenly with two Republican and two Democratic appointees, only has Republican appointee Ronald DeFilippis serving as of present.

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Recent New Jersey State Election Law Limits Delivery of Mail-In Ballots by Authorized Individuals

By Briana Cornelius

On August 10, 2015, the New Jersey legislature passed a new state election law, Public Law 2015, Chapter 84, which limits the number of “Vote by Mail” ballots that a designated delivery person can pick up and deliver on behalf of other registered voters. Under the New Jersey “Vote by Mail Law,” an “authorized messenger” is an individual who is permitted to obtain mail-in ballots for other qualified voters. Previously, authorized messengers were allowed to obtain up to ten ballots for delivery to other voters, and “bearers” were permitted to return an unlimited number of completed ballots to county election boards on behalf of other voters.  The new law, which took effect immediately, reduces the number of ballots that both an authorized messenger and bearer can deliver to just three. This change in the law (you can see the previous version of the law here) represents the first time there has been any limit on the number of ballots that a bearer can deliver to county election officials.

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The Changing Face of Elections Technology in New Jersey: An Interview with Paula Sollami Covello, County Clerk, Mercer County, New Jersey

by Melanie Walter

On October 19, 2012, I had the opportunity to speak with Paula Sollami Covello, the County Clerk in Mercer County, New Jersey. She is responsible for ballots, positioning on the ballots, and Election Day counting of returns. She was first elected to this office in 2006.

Mrs. Covello described the three offices responsible for running elections. “The Clerk’s office draws the ballots and positions. We also print the ballots, and prep sample and print and issue vote-by-mail ballots…The Clerk’s office also counts votes on Election Night.” She also described the roles of the other two offices, “The Superintendant of elections deals with voter registration… The Board of Elections is a bipartisan board, two Democrats and two Republicans. The Board counts all the vote-by-mail ballots. They are also in charge of polling locations and training poll workers.” Mrs. Covello expressed faith in this process, saying that this three-office system “provides good checks and balances. There are multiple offices with responsibilities, and it functions in a bipartisan way. The County Clerk is elected, but the staff is all civil servants, and the Superintendant is from one party, but the deputy Superintendant is from the other major party.” Continue reading

“It’s the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen in politics.”

by Aaron C. Carter

Whether hyperbole or not, Rep. Bill Pascrell had harsh words for his Democratic primary opponent Rep. Steve Rothman in their June 5, 2012 primary election contest.  After redistricting, New Jersey lost a congressional seat and two sitting Congressional members faced head to head in the 9th Congressional district, which is comfortably Democratic.  Rep. Pascrell won the primary 30,227 (61%) to 19,118 (39%)but there was an interesting maneuver by the Rothman campaign and their attorneys that raised the ire of Congressman Pascrell.

A lawyer for the Rothman Campaign complained about irregularities in the absentee voting process in a request to have 2,000 absentee ballots from Passaic County impounded.  The Passaic County Superintendent of Elections felt that to protect the election process the ballots should be impounded Monday afternoon before the Tuesday election to give the parties time to review them.  Judge Ernest M. Caposela later vacated the order. Judge Caposela ruled that the Rothman campaign could inspect the ballots, but required the ballots to be counted starting the next morning.

The initial impoundment was possible under N.J.S.A. 19:58-30.  The statute reads “Specific power is hereby granted to the superintendent of elections in counties having a superintendent of elections and the prosecutor in all other counties to impound all such ballots whenever he shall deem such action to be necessary.”  Superintendent Robert J. De Mers exercised this power in the face of possible irregularities.  These irregularities included a Paterson storefront covered with signs for Rep. Bill Pascrell, telling passers-by they could fill out mail-in ballots inside and a Facebook wall post by a Passaic County Sheriff deputy that said he had a number of ballots he “collected for Bill. “

In reaching his decision to release the impoundment ballots, Judge Caposela, helped shine some light on why he considered the action “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable.” Traditionally, [the Court] will not reverse an agency’s decision unless: (1) it was arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable; (2) it violated express or implied legislative policies; (3) it offended the State or Federal Constitution; or (4) the findings on which it was based were not supported by substantial, credible evidence in the record. In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644 (1999).

Judge Caposela looked to In re Absentee Ballots Cast by Five Residents of Trenton Psychiatric Hosp. 331 N.J. Super. 31(App. Div. 2000) for guidance on what the court considered reasonable in regards to impounding absentee ballots.  The Judge in that case, similar to Supervisor of Elections De Mers reasoned “that the ‘safe approach’ was to segregate the ballots now, and only allow the ballots to be opened if the voter was later determined competent.”

The Appeals Court for the Psychiatric Hosp. case held, “(1) a challenge based            on residency at the psychiatric hospital alone is illegal; (2) the voters were deprived of their fundamental right to vote because their ballots were segregated; and (3) the judge erred by not placing the burden on the challengers to show by clear and convincing evidence that the voters were ineligible to vote.”

These determinations were deemed applicable for the Rothman case as well.  Judge Caposela considered the wholesale impoundment of ballots from a particular county disturbing in light of the evidence.  There was definitely a strategic aspect to going after specifically Passaic County vote-by-mail ballots in a wholesale fashion.   Pascrell overwhelmed Rothman 9-to-1 in his home county base, running up a 22,000-vote cushion that Rothman could not offset in parts of Bergen and Hudson counties that had sent him to Congress for eight terms before.  A Facebook post and darkened windows were not considered “evidence” in the legal sense of the word according to Judge Caposela.  With a fundamental right at stake, the action was considered “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable.”

The impoundment statute, N.J.S.A. 19:58-30, vests significant discretion in the prosecutor or Superintendent of Elections to take action. Often in an effort to protect elections, these parties slow down the process to the detriment of one candidate or another.  While there is recourse in the courts for these maneuvers, if the Superintendent of Elections’ actions were upheld, 2,000 people could have lost their voice until all the in-person votes were counted.  Whether justified or not, these type of maneuvers raise significant questions on the vote by mail process.  If the legislature is interested in upholding the integrity of the electoral process, it may want to reconsider the power it vests in the Superintendent of Elections and prosecutors to impound ballots.

Aaron C. Carter is a second-year student at William & Mary Law School.


What’s in a date? Moving school board elections in New Jersey

by David Noll, Staff Writer

The way that seemingly innocuous procedural matters can shape the outcomes of elections is quite frightening. This year, New Jersey’s school board elections will showcase this phenomenon. Towns in New Jersey are now allowed to move their elections from mid-April to November 6th. Most districts have made the change in order to capitalize on a lower cost to hosting the elections. Also, by moving the elections districts are allowed to increase budgets within the district’s tax levy. The state passed legislation allowing this in the hopes of producing higher voter turnout. This isn’t a new idea. Other states hold school elections along with the general elections and states like New York have talked about moving the election date for decades. So why would it matter to change the date?

In the past, estimates for school board election turnout ranged from 25% to under 15% of registered voters in the state. In 2010, 55.6% of New Jersey citizens were registered to vote; New Jersey had a total population of approximately 8.8 million people, meaning between 0.6 and 1.2 million people in Jersey care about school board elections enough to vote. The problem may be in putting the levers to vote in front of the 36.2% of New Jersey that goes to vote in the general election (or 3.2 million people). As long as the current school board voters are a more homogenous group then the total electorate, the outcomes and interests of school board elections will face pressure to shift.

Part of the incentive for districts to move their elections to Nov 6th is that by doing so they may increase their budget within the tax levy (~%2) without needing a vote on the budget. This was a good move by legislators. Without this provision, few districts would pass their budgets once the new voting body shows up on the 6th[P1] . The new school board election date is going to see a voting body closer to that of the state average in all demographics. If the old voting group had higher than average numbers of parents and grandparents in it, who may have been willing to increase school budgets, then the new voting group will, theoretically, be broader and less inclined to vote for increased taxes and school budgets.

By allowing the board to increase the budget for the coming year without a vote there is now a larger incentive for tax conscious voters to take an active role in school boards. When this is combined with a larger, less education-oriented voting group, the chance that voters will deny budget increases is higher.

This is bad for the schools but it is also bad from an electoral standpoint. America doesn’t have compulsory voting so that people that don’t want to vote or don’t care about electoral outcomes are free to abstain. A simple calculation using rational voter theory shows us that the voters who already turn out to school board elections benefit more. Those that will vote out of convenience only do so because their cost to voting, or their minimum required level of interest, is reduced.

This year’s elections won’t result in a large-scale change to school boards. Undoubtedly, some veteran board members will lose their seats to new faces that campaign to the full electorate better. And in the first year, budgets are going to increase as they have in the past. Keep in mind that the board from the year before writes the budget for the coming year. It is in the next few years that the change will be most evident. The broadening of the voting body and shifting of those voter’s goals means that candidates for school boards will change as well.

Because elections are an iterated game, as the voters and the candidates get a better feel for the new playing field the best campaigners will move away from the interests of schools and parents. Instead, their primary interest will be on the taxes that fund schools. If this newer group in the electorate realizes the power they have, then it is unlikely that veteran board members will get re-elected unless they move from their pro-education focus.

For districts that did choose to move elections to Nov 6th, they are ineligible to move the elections back into April for four years. This is a good length of a test period for an electoral change. The worry is that by the end of four years the board members will have been elected by the general voting body of New Jersey and not the original smaller body who had a motivating interest in the elections in the first place. Meaning that, like in all other elections, the man who won by the rules in place will be hesitant to change them.

David Noll is a first-year student at William & Mary Law School and a Staff Writer for the State of Elections blog.


Caught with Your Hand in the Cookie Jar? Better Not Bail Yourself Out with Campaign Funds

by Melanie Walter

When you write a check to support a candidate’s political campaign, you have a general expectation as to how the money will be spent. You anticipate the candidate using an election account to buy signs, make commercials, hire staffers, and even buy tickets to fundraisers or pick up coffee and donuts for volunteers. When you donate to a candidate you have faith in, one you want to see in an elected position, the odds are that one thing you do not expect, or want, your money to be spent on is a criminal lawyer. However, this use of campaign funds has been considered in New Jersey of late, as more than one New Jersey elected official has faced indictment and found himself scrambling to rally the funds necessary to mount a legal defense. Continue reading

Young New Jersey Republican learns campaign finance the hard way, or: “Dad, can I have $16,000?”

by Kevin Elliker

When my older brother graduated from college, he moved back in with my parents, got a job as a lifeguard and spent the summer looking for full-time work. Hank Lyon went a different route. After graduating from Holy Cross in 2010, and while working for his parents’ various businesses, he decided to run for the office of freeholder in Morris County, New Jersey. Things didn’t quite work out as smoothly as he’d hoped.

Lyon entered the field as a candidate in the June 7 Republican primary election. His only competition: Margaret Nordstrom, the 12-year incumbent, thrice chosen as the freeholder board’s directors, and a former mayor of Washington Township. In putting together his campaign, Lyon made his father campaign treasurer and became a partner in his parents’ LLC. His father claimed that by making Hank a partner in the LLC, Hank could convey to voters his personal interest in property taxes (presupposing it would be tough to convey that interest when you live at home with your parents).

Nordstrom, aware of her opponent’s family resources, kept close watch on Lyon’s campaign finance filings. It didn’t seem she had much to worry about; a month before the election, Lyon’s campaign had collected a little less than $5,000 (compared to her $10,000). Based on those figures, Nordstrom knew Lyon couldn’t spend as much as she previously anticipated, so she scaled back her campaign. This was reinforced when Lyon listed $636.88 as his campaign balance on the 11-Day Pre-Election Report. Continue reading

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