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.
More than six months after the 2020 elections, Republicans in some states are still searching for elusive evidence of voter fraud they say robbed their party of the White House.
After dozens of recounts, lawsuits and private investigations such as the ongoing vote “audit” in Maricopa County, Arizona, they’ve found none.
But credible allegations of mail-in ballot fraud and other voting irregularities continue to stream from one corner of New Jersey, where Democrats are demanding investigations and shouting for election monitors ahead of next month’s primary.
At the center of the controversy is a political operative who’s been instrumental in getting an entire generation of South Jersey Democrats elected to city council, school board and the state Legislature. Craig Callaway is also an ex-convict who spent 40 months in federal prison after accepting $36,000 in bribes while serving as Atlantic City Council president.
Despite his criminal record, which also includes conviction on federal extortion charges in a sex-tape sting he masterminded, Callaway has been able to build a get-out-the-vote machine that commands large swaths of Black voters from the poorest neighborhoods of Atlantic City, where he grew up. Working alongside him are many of his 12 siblings, including sister Gwendolyn, who chairs the city’s Democratic committee.
Callaway’s alliance with his party suffered a big hit last year when, in exchange for $110,000, he signed up with Democrat-turned-Republican Jeff Van Drew in New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District. With Callaway’s help, Van Drew edged out Amy Kennedy in a stinging defeat for New Jersey progressives.
Political rift gets personal
Now, the rift between Callaway and the party leaders who relied on him for so many years has taken a nasty and personal turn that has raised questions of vote harvesting and mail-in ballot fraud that certain supporters of former President Donald Trump claim, without evidence, was rampant elsewhere.
Last week, Democrats in Atlantic County formally asked the New Jersey attorney general’s office to investigate claims that Callaway manipulated mail-in ballots in the 2020 general election. The complaint, first reported by the Atlantic City Press, alleges that Callaway improperly assisted more than 125 people to fill out and deliver their mail-in ballots.
Although the complaint was not signed, it raises the same kind of issues registered in a July 2020 complaint to the state from lawyers for Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Jr., who faces a primary opponent backed by Callaway. The 2020 complaint cites allegations that Callaway has illegally tampered with ballots for 15 years. It also contains a video that appears to show Callaway obtaining provisional ballots for residents of the city’s Second Ward and helping voters fill them out.
Election records, public documents and other materials reviewed by NJ Spotlight News show that Callaway, members of his family and other associates of his organization “assisted” hundreds of Atlantic City voters in elections going back to 2017. Videos from Election Day last November show Callaway walking into polling places, asking for provisional ballots, and filling them out.
State law allows the use of such assistants if they are officially registered and declared at the ballot booth. But the law was intended to be for limited use, primarily for shut-ins and others who cannot sign absentee ballots. The videos show Callaway working with able-bodied voters who sit with him and watch as he completes their ballot.
With questions about Callaway’s methods mounting, leading Democratic officials in Atlantic County have reached the point of denouncing an operative they built up and embraced for years.
‘Time has come to cut ties’
“The time has come for the party to finally cut ties with Craig Callaway,” said Atlantic City Democratic Chairman Michael Suleiman. “How can we claim to be the party of open and fair voting with a guy like this on our side?”
Suleiman acknowledged that party leadership over the years bears responsibility for promoting Callaway despite widespread allegations that he abused mail-in ballot procedures through an elaborate and effective system of vote messengers. He said the state Legislature should now consider new limits on the use of voting assistants, similar to the restrictions on vote messengers passed in 2015 via the so-called “Callaway Law.”
That law limited messengers to delivering just three absentee or mail-in ballots.
Despite the continuing questions about Callaway, Suleiman said, some politicians of both parties continue to hire him because they know his network can turn an election. Many of those same politicians campaign as reform candidates.
“It’s hypocrisy plain and simple, but it’s been an unfortunate fact of life in Atlantic County for a long time,” Suleiman said.
Calls to Callaway and his organization were not returned. The attorney general’s office declined to discuss any investigation into the consultant.
Atlantic City voters
In an interview with NJ Spotlight News last fall, Callaway said his methods are legal and claimed that allegations against him stem from political opponents and “losers” who don’t understand the needs of Black voters in Atlantic City.
He also denied illegally paying vote messengers and said that his success comes from his experience growing up in Black neighborhoods as part of a large family that was deeply rooted in the community. Many of his siblings, as well as members of his extended family, now work for Callaway or run political groups allied with him.
“The fact is that I have a wealth of experience, a wealth of common sense and a wealth of intelligence,” Callaway said in that interview. “I’m effective because I know my own community.”
After signing on with Van Drew last fall, Callaway became increasingly isolated within his own party and has become embroiled in bizarre public feuds with former friends. He has called Kennedy, who hired him in the 2020 congressional primary, a “loser,” and claims she stiffed him out of a victory bonus after the primary.
He has also fought openly with Small, another old friend, and furthered unsupported claims that Small and his wife allowed child abuse to take place in their home. Small has angrily denied the claim and filed a slander suit against Callaway.
Callaway also continues to attack leading state Democrats, including Gov. Phil Murphy, claiming they have abandoned minority voters in Atlantic City. Videos of political meetings show him issuing nebulous “warnings” to Democratic legislators, and he is backing several primary candidates who have not been endorsed by the county organization.
Impact on clean-election messaging
Outside observers say the mess, and growing publicity about alleged voter fraud connected to Callaway, is undermining progressive messaging on clean elections at a time when the party should be moving ahead.
“This continues to be an embarrassment to the party and give ammunition to people like Donald Trump who claim Democrats run fraudulent elections,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
Rasmussen, who served as press secretary for former Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey, noted that the party made huge strides in 2020 expanding voter participation through methods like mail-in voting and drop boxes. More change is on the way this year as the state puts early voting in place.
“Unfortunately, no matter how progressive we claim to be, some politicians on both sides will continue to do whatever they can to win,” Rasmussen said. “It’s base hypocrisy.”
The political landscape, indeed, is littered with candidates and elected officials like Mayor Small and former Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam who denounced Callaway after working with him or seeking his aid.
Last year, for example, Democratic leaders point out that Brigid Harrison, a 2nd Congressional District candidate for their party, was eager to meet with Callaway and seek his support in a private meeting before last year’s primary election. When Callaway later decided to back Kennedy, Harrison called on the U.S. Justice Department under Trump to send election monitors into Atlantic County.
Election transparency, Democratic Party strife
“We are incredibly concerned about the fairness of and transparency of the election,” Harrison said at the time. “This has been an issue in Atlantic County for quite some time. The voter fraud allegations have largely centered on Craig Callaway.”
After losing Callaway’s support in the general election, the Kennedy campaign also badmouthed Callaway in background conversations with reporters.
“We obviously didn’t make the best choice in hiring this guy,” one Kennedy aide told NJ Spotlight News in an interview after the election.
Priscilla Dimario, a political consultant who has worked widely in Atlantic County, says the politicians who breathe life into the Callaway organization must shoulder the blame for continued strife within the local Democratic Party.
Dimario is one of several Democrats who say they have seen the Callaway juggernaut virtually take over county government offices during elections, busing in dozens of allied vote messengers and delivering absentee ballots in large plastic trash bags. Complaints and letters to law enforcement officials, she said, go unanswered.
In state Superior Court testimony that surfaced last year, a former employee of Callaway’s said he helped his boss fix ballots for more than a decade. The employee, for example, said that changing the signatures on ballots was commonplace, and that Callaway even used steam machines to open sealed ballots for alteration.
“Everybody has run into it now and then, everybody knows it goes on, yet it keeps happening and Craig continues to operate,” Dimario said. “The really frustrating thing is that nothing happens to him because he has power and isn’t afraid to use it. What does that say about New Jersey?”