Non-Establishment Democrats Want State to Monitor Elections in Piscataway

Colleen O'Dea | October 28, 2019 | Elections 2019, Politics
Alleging irregularities and infringement of voting rights in previous polling, Central Jersey Progressive Democrats ask state attorney general to intervene in Middlesex County
L to R: Staci Berger, Kamuela Tillman and Laura Liebowitz, newly elected to the Piscataway Democratic Organization, were among the signatories of letter to Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.

Members of the Central Jersey Progressive Democrats (CJPD) sent letters last week to Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and to Secretary of State Tahesha Way, whose office oversees elections, alleging that infringements of voting rights — including a polling place judge telling workers not to offer provisional ballots when a person’s ability to vote is in question — occurred in the June 4 primary in Piscataway.

“Every single vote must count,” said Herb Tarbous, a former Middlesex County Democratic Organization committee member from Piscataway. “It is incomprehensible and indefensible that a polling place judge would actively encourage poll workers to deny people the right to vote. As the state’s vote by mail program expands, many more voters may come to the polls without a complete understanding of their right to vote by provisional ballot if a question arises about their eligibility.”

Last Friday, Robert Giles, head of the state Division of Elections, replied to the group, indicating the office had contacted Tom Lynch, administrator of the Middlesex County Board of Elections, who was preparing a reply to their allegations.

Neither Lynch nor Middlesex County Freeholder Director Ronald Rios returned requests for comment last week. A spokesman for Grewal said he had no comment and his office had not replied to the progressive Democratic group as of Friday.

Election monitors are often present in countries where democratic processes are considered less than honest, but they are also used routinely throughout the United States. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights sent monitors to Middlesex and Union counties to observe voting in 2018 elections.

“I don’t know if the AG has ever done polling place monitoring, but I have been told that Deputy AGs staff the Board of Elections on election day,” said Staci Berger, a member of the CJPD. “There is some oversight happening somewhere, it is just not where it needs to be.”

Video evidence

CJPD wrote a report detailing what it termed as irregularities in voting places in Piscataway in June 2019. The report includes a link to a video in which an election official tells poll workers “don’t mention the word provisional” — referring to provisional ballots — because there won’t be very many. “In Sandy, you had 180 and that’s worth it,” the official says, referring to the 2012 storm that disrupted the election that year. State law allows people to vote by provisional ballot when they cannot use a voting machine for a number of reasons, including a recent change of address or having received but not used a vote-by-mail ballot.

The report also includes photos of two individuals identified as Democratic committee candidates handling and looking through official voter books (in which voters sign their names before voting), which it termed “a violation of rules, practices and procedures.”

Eyewitnesses recounted several other problems. For instance, they contend that a poll judge allowed a registered Republican to vote in the Democratic Party primary, workers told unaffiliated voters that they could not vote in the primary because they “lose their independence,” and some poll workers were not properly credentialed or trained.

“We are writing to bring to your attention our serious concerns about voting rights and the administration of fair and free elections at polling places in Piscataway, Middlesex County, and to seek the assistance of your offices to ensure that elections are conducted lawfully and free of bias,” states the letter sent to Grewal and Way that accompanied the report. “The voting rights of our neighbors are being infringed and impeded, and the rights of candidates and voters to participate in free and fair elections are being jeopardized.”

The Central Jersey Progressive Democrats, organized after the 2016 presidential election, have been serving as a counterpoint to the traditional Democratic organization in the blue stronghold. According to its website, the group is opposed to “business as usual within the Democratic Party.” It supports “a Progressive agenda of social, political and economic justice that speaks to the needs of working and middle class people.” Members have been shaking up the status quo in Middlesex County Democratic Party circles.

Discord among Middlesex County Dems

Last month, three members of the group attending their first meeting of the Piscataway Democratic Organization as elected committee members, reported that the township party chairman threatened to have them removed for asking questions about meeting minutes, asking to call the annual Christmas party a holiday party, and making motions to support climate change actions. They wrote to state and county Democratic leaders asking them to send an independent observer to future meetings “to ensure the rights of all Democratic voters are preserved.”

The three members — Berger, Kamuela Tillman and Laura Liebowitz — won their seats after scoring a legal victory earlier this year to get on the ballot. They sought, and received, a judge’s approval to run for party committee seats on single-gender slates even though a 70-year-old state law requires all districts be represented by one man and one woman.

In their letter to Grewal and Way, the three women and eight other CJPD members said they “are gravely concerned that the Board of Elections permits practices and procedures that afford partisan political entities — the Middlesex County Democratic Organization and the Piscataway Democratic Organization — unfair advantage at polling places in Piscataway, and cause voter confusion, improper voting, disenfranchisement, and ultimately compromised election integrity.”

The members wrote that this is not the first time they have alerted the county’s board of elections to problems at polling places.

“Unfortunately, no remedies have been provided this year, nor were any provided after similar incidents were raised after previous elections,” they wrote. “We are asking for your assistance, as we can no longer simply hope that the Board and local entities will address these issues.”

The first remedy sought by the group is for the state to send independent monitors to the county, particularly to polling places “that have a poor track record,” in the days leading up to and on Election Day.

“It is clear that election administration is not being uniformly provided for in a fair and neutral manner in Piscataway,” the letter states. “Unless and until incidents like these are resolved, the State should deploy independent monitors to review the election administration process and provide a mechanism for voters to register concerns and complaints.”

Changes being sought

Other actions the group is seeking include:

  • Provide increased oversight of polling places where judges and poll workers have acted improperly and, if needed, permanently remove those individuals who are not willing or able to adhere to the law;
  • Ensure that poll workers are properly trained and able to operate the voting booth equipment;
  • Ensure that polling places display proper sample ballots, voting rights information and a toll-free voting hotline number so that voters can access immediate assistance. Include information about the options for primary and Election Day delivery of vote-by-mail ballots and forms that let voters opt out of the VBM program;
  • Provide additional information about the proper use of provisional ballots and the legal right for voters to vote provisionally, so that poll workers and voters know the law. Polling place judges and poll workers should be instructed to provide provisional ballots if any question arises about a person’s right to cast a ballot;
  • Review incident reporting procedures. Require the use and distribution of incident reports, ensure that they are included in the polling place materials and ensure that polling place judges and workers are instructed about using them. Provide a mechanism for redressing issues that arise and are reported using these forms, including informing the voter about the resolution of the incident filed.