By Keith A. Davis, Chairman, Atlantic County Republican Committee
In the immediate aftermath of the Nov. 7 election, numerous public reports appeared relating instances of failures or mechanical breakdowns of the new electronic voting machines. While reviews are underway to determine whether the problems were sufficiently widespread to alter the outcome of close races, Atlantic County experienced — yet again — its own difficulties, not with the new technology, but with the old fashioned paper ballots.
The persistent abuse of the messenger application system to obtain absentee ballots surfaced again this year and played a role in deciding the election outcome.
The need to act quickly to reform New Jersey?s election laws and eliminate the loophole which has permitted — if not encouraged — abuse of the system is more acute than ever.
Under current law, anyone may secure an unlimited number of ballot applications to be completed by registered voters, attesting they are infirm or confined to their homes by illness.
Applications are submitted to the County Clerk, the ballots are obtained, and delivered on Election Day.
Aside from determining that the applicant is a registered voter, procedural oversight is non-existent. There is no method to determine who has custody of the ballots, or whether they are actually turned over to the person whose name appears on the application.
For an individual or group intent on influencing an election outcome, the system is tailor made. By obtaining ballots solely on the strength of a signature, they can:
Complete the ballots themselves.
Persuade or intimidate an applicant to support specific candidates.
Discard the ballot if the applicant supports the ?wrong? candidate.
In the contest this year for the at large seat on the Board of Freeholders, an examination of absentee ballots secured via the messenger system revealed:
* Nearly two dozen absentee ballots were submitted and accepted with the only signature an ?X.?
*One individual obtained a ballot by messenger and then served as messenger to deliver five more ballots.
*Forty one messenger applications came from multiple individuals in the same households.
*Three came from individuals who listed the city homeless shelter as their address.
*Ten came from persons listed on the voter registration rolls as ?inactive.?
*From our investigation, at least nine came from voters who claimed not to have been ill or confined to their homes.
In virtually every instance of abuse in the system, the common denominator has been the involvement of convicted felon Craig Callaway and his associates. While Callaway is awaiting sentencing for accepting $36,000 in bribes, the Democrat Party in the county has continued to utilize his creative get out the vote efforts.
The overwhelming majority of the messenger applications consistently come from Atlantic City where the Callaway group is most active and most influential.
It was not the group?s first attempt at pre-determining an election result.
They reversed the results of the Atlantic City Board of Education election in April by submitting nearly 1,000 ballots obtained by messenger application. Some 80 per cent of them favored candidates supported by Callaway and they transformed election night victors into morning after losers.
Last month, a Superior Court judge, dismissing a complaint of voter fraud in a primary election in Pleasantville in which the Callaway group was involved, said there appeared to be evidence that fraud had occurred, but the complaint was filed after the deadline expired.
Republican Frank Blee and Democrat Jim Whelan have introduced legislation in the Assembly to revamp the system.
Whelan?s proposal limits to five the number of messenger applications any one person can obtain, while Blee?s takes reform further by giving the Board of Elections authority to determine an application?s validity.
While Whelan?s proposal is an improvement, Blee?s legislation is preferable. It provides for two Board of Elections staff personnel — one Republican and one Democrat — to deliver a ballot to an applicant and return the completed ballot to the board. Custody of the ballot is thus not in question, nor can there be any dispute over the identity of the applicant.
It is my hope that Whelan will lend his support to the Blee bill and urge the Democrat leadership to bring it to a vote before the 2007 election cycle is upon us.
Over the past several years, the Legislature has acted to make registering and voting more convenient. While encouraging voter turnout is desirable, there is an equal responsibility to assure that the integrity of the process is not compromised.
The acceptance of potentially fraudulent votes effectively disenfranchises those voters who cast their ballots lawfully. The honest are punished and the dishonest rewarded because of a system that invites illegality with very little prospect of being caught.
Once questionable absentee ballots are accepted, the nearly impossible task of proving fraud falls to the defeated candidates. Locating hundreds of people who signed messenger applications, persuading them to be forthcoming and taking affidavits from them is a time consuming and costly venture which a defeated candidate would be understandably reluctant to undertake.
The solution is in the enactment of legislation similar to that proposed by Assemblyman Blee. Failure to do so will embolden those bent on subverting the system for personal or political gain and serve to reinforce Atlantic County?s reputation as a place where election outcomes won?t be final until fraud is factored into the results.