Election Day problems, Newark: Delayed openings, confusion forced potential voters away from polls

Genesis Obando | November 13, 2020 | NJ Decides 2020
Similar delays, glitches with in-person voting elsewhere in New Jersey
Credit: New Jersey National Lawyers Guild
Nov. 3, 2020: There was a lack of signage guiding voters to the polling site at the Boylan Street Recreation Center in Newark on Election Day.

Editor’s Note: This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

By noon on Election Day, New Jersey’s largest city was beset with problems at several of its polling places: long lines, delayed openings, and confusion about where to go. And activists are calling for voting reform.

Three polling locations in Newark opened almost an hour late, including Sanford Avenue and Boylan Recreation Center, where after doors opened, voters continued to wait as poll workers set up voting machines.

At the Weequahic High School polling site people were banging on a door to be let in while the unmoving line behind them grew.

Tanya Kitaigorovski, a supervising attorney for the National Lawyers Guild, said that many voters abandoned slow-moving lines because they had to get to work and couldn’t wait any longer.

“They stood in line for over an hour and there was no explanation as to why,” said Kitaigorovski. “Nothing, just the doors were closed and you deal with it.”

For all the stories of New Jersey’s relative success in pulling off the mail-in part of the election, Newark’s experience on Election Day was indicative of glitches and delays that beset the in-person part in many cities and towns. Gov. Phil Murphy has said there were “some glitches” but he was pleased with how the election went overall.

Newark not the only place with Election Day issues

Voting rights groups, like the League of Women Voters, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the National Lawyers Guild all reported similar issues around the state.

In Newark, a lack of signage at polling places like Mansfield Elementary School and the Boylan Street Recreation Center created confusion for voters. Volunteers with the National Lawyers Guild said there were not enough signs indicating a location was a polling site.

At one polling place, Kitaigorovski said, there were signs with arrows that gave directions, but they were not clear enough for people to understand. So, she took a marker, a piece of paper and made signs that said, “to vote” and placed them next to the arrows.

Credit: Tanya Kitaigorovski
Nov. 3, 2020: A supervising attorney for the National Lawyers Guild added the “to vote” wording above the arrow at the Weequahic High School polling site in Newark to help guide voters.

“What seems like a small problem is a big one,” said Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters in New Jersey.

This year, polling locations were consolidated as part of COVID-19 safety regulations for Election Day. There had to be at least one polling site in every municipality. Newark condensed its polling sites to 35 locations, compared to 105 in 2018.

Inadequate information

Kitaigorovski said people were still going to their usual polling places from past elections because they didn’t receive notification about changes, and some were surprised to see no polling place open where they expected one.

There were also many first-time voters. The state reported more than 120,000 New Jerseyans registered to vote in September, the first month the online registration portal was open. Volunteers with the National Lawyers Guild and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who were part of the Election Day Poll Monitoring Program, said they got many tips about confusion among voters across the state.

Essex County Board of Elections Clerk Linda Von Nessi did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but Essex County Clerk Christopher Durkin acknowledged on Election Day that there were some problems in his county seat.

“There were miscommunications in when to be opening up a building, or there were issues with materials being delayed in being transported there … But what I saw was that by 6:30, everything was up and running,” said Durkin.

Among activists, lawyers and voters there is dissatisfaction with Newark’s overall performance on Election Day.

The entrance to the polling place at Rafael Hernandez Elementary, Newark was behind the dumpster.

“I’m just very disappointed in how the city handled this particular situation,” said Kitaigorovski. For future elections she hopes more poll workers are hired to better assist voters and that election officials communicate better. She thinks they could have done a better job reaching out to voters, especially those without internet access who couldn’t read about polling place changes online.

Do-it-yourself signs

In Trenton and elsewhere, Election Day volunteers with the National Lawyers Guild also made clearer and more prominent signs for polling locations and guided voters on how to get there.

Susan Roy, a legal observer for the New Jersey National Lawyers Guild, one of the volunteers, said voters and poll workers were thankful that the volunteers were putting up signs.

“Some of the polling locations were extremely hard to find… at some, there was no indication whatsoever where the actual entrance was to go in to vote,” said Roy.

The Mercer County Board of Elections did not respond to a request for comment.

Voting activists hope that election and government officials will now look seriously at legislating to make elections accessible for all voters.

Several bills have been proposed in the Legislature that would mitigate voting problems, but have not made it to a floor vote. These bills aimed to move the voter registration deadline closer to Election Day and provide early in-person voting for some elections.

Gov. Phil Murphy has said he encourages lawmakers to pass legislation that would allow early in-person voting. Murphy’s ideal voting system includes mail-in voting, early in-person voting and Election Day voting on machines.

For this year’s election, all registered and active voters received a mail-in ballot. If they did not want to vote that way, they also had the option to vote in person with a provisional ballot. All voters were supposed to be notified via mail and assigned an Election Day polling location that would be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Voters also could search online for their assigned polling place. But, many voters reported problems — not getting their mail-in ballots on time or not receiving any communication from their local election officials.

‘A lot of lessons’ to learn

Many voters understood they should expect long lines on Election Day because of COVID-19 requirements for social distancing. Inconveniences and long waits are not unusual in elections, but activists still worry about disenfranchised voters.

“It matters to us that voters left that morning after waiting for over an hour,” Burns of the League of Women Voters in New Jersey said. “And every time a voter is left out of the system, we need to do better.”

Election officials and poll workers have been overwhelmed for weeks trying to keep up with changes in election processes and making sure people can vote. They admit there are problems but often seem to minimize problems that are big for voters. This year, many of those who left polling sites on Election Day missed their opportunity to vote if they didn’t come back or send in their mail-in ballot.

Activists say that if these issues continue to be ignored or minimized, there could be many more disenfranchised voters in future elections. They believe that election officials can do more to avoid mistakes and make sure people can exercise their right to vote.

“We’re going to have a lot of lessons learned from this election, and there’s still a lot of voting reform that needs to happen in our state,” said Burns.

This story was produced with tips from ProPublica’s Electionland project. 

—  John Mooney and Colleen O’Dea contributed to this story.