Marathon political spectacle plays out at the Shore

Paula S. Dunn , chairwoman of the Atlantic County Board of Elections, said one 12-hour session of provisional-ballot counting left her sick. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Paula S. Dunn , chairwoman of the Atlantic County Board of Elections, said one 12-hour session of provisional-ballot counting left her sick. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Posted: November 18, 2013

MAYS LANDING, N.J. The other night, in a mostly empty old courthouse in this historic county seat, provisional ballots were wheeled before the Atlantic County Board of Elections from their secure storage place behind bars - literally - in an unused jail cell.

And as hours passed and tempers frayed, drawing comparisons to the tumultuous 2000 presidential vote count in Florida, it felt like a new reality show was born: "Palm Beach County, N.J."

The count of provisional ballots last week would drag on for 20 hours over two days, including a 12-hour session lasting until nearly 3 a.m. that board Chairwoman Paula S. Dunn said left her literally sick.

Hanging on by a lemon zest-thin margin was three-term Assemblyman John Amodeo, a union crane operator who at the end of the unofficial count led by just two votes over Democrat Vincent Mazzeo, owner of the eponymous fruit and vegetable store on Route 9.

In place of the Florida hanging chads, the Mays Landing spectacle has featured photos of empty lots and shuttered houses that GOP challengers claimed voters had registered as their home addresses; enlarged signature comparisons; and scores of ballots that poll workers signed, indicating they assisted voters - improperly, according to Republicans; innocuously, said Democrats.

Outraged Democrats accused Republicans of trying to suppress minority voters by targeting Atlantic City and Pleasantville - both typically Democratic strongholds - for postelection canvassing and ballot challenges.

"You're seeking to disenfranchise voters," said the Democrats' lawyer, Chris Orlando.

Replied GOP attorney Randy Lafferty: "The integrity of the process is what needs to be protected."

On Friday, Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez rejected challenges to 108 of those provisional ballots on which the board had deadlocked over the assistance issue, plus seven other disputed ballots, ruling that the votes should be counted. This left the outcome still in doubt but with the Mazzeo camp confident it would end up ahead.

End result aside - and a slim margin closing to two votes, with 115 more in play, had everyone on edge - it was the provisional ballot hearing itself that featured the most biting partisan brawling.

Chairwoman Dunn, a Democrat, accused a fellow board member, Republican Robert Marshall, of geographically tailoring his votes on ballot challenges.

Dunn is one of two Democrats on the four-person board, all appointed by the governor and paid $10,000 a year.

"I hate to say this, but, all of a sudden, we're in Pleasantville?" Dunn asked him after Marshall voted to accept a challenge to a Pleasantville voter's ballot based on a GOP assertion that the voter did not live where the registration indicated. The GOP cited evidence its volunteers - mostly union electricians - gathered during a weekend of postelection canvassing.

Up until that point, the board had voted 4-0 to reject all similar challenges. This one was still rejected, 3-1, after Mary Alyse Strother, the other Republican, maintained her earlier stance, joining Dunn and the other Democrat, Bernice Couch.

The tensions simmered for hour after hour of challenges.

"Don't stir that pot," Marshall said after County Democratic Chairman Jim Schroeder also accused the Republicans of treating ballots from Pleasantville and Atlantic City differently than ballots from other towns.

"I don't have to," Schroeder retorted. "You've stirred it."

Maybe it was the ghost of the notorious 1920s political boss Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, once treasurer of Atlantic County, back to roil the elections, including an Atlantic City mayoral race where Republican Don Guardian unexpectedly toppled Mayor Lorenzo Langford. What would Nucky do?

Called among the names for provisional ballots were the wife of former Mayor Robert Levy, the daughter of Langford's campaign manager, a local reporter covering the count, and a former school board official everyone recalled had been in jail until recently.

(Provisional ballots are issued when the voter arrives at a polling place and is either not listed or listed as having received a mail-in vote. They must be ruled on by the election board.)

Frank Askin, a law professor at Rutgers University, said state election law makes it a disorderly persons offense to canvass voters disproportionately based on their race, ethnicity, or how one believes they might be voting.

"The Democrats have some authority to say, if Republicans are merely challenging black voters or voters who live in a community that's predominantly black, that's illegal," Askin said. "You also can't focus on challenging voters because of expected manner of casting a vote."

The state Republican Party is still under a 30-year-old consent decree issued by U.S. District Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise in which it agreed not to undertake any "ballot security activities" in districts "where the racial or ethnic composition of such districts is a factor in the decision."

If the activity is conducted disproportionately in districts with a substantial proportion of particular racial or ethnic groups, this "shall be considered relevant evidence of the existence of such a factor and purpose," the decree says.

Askin said the law is clear on the issue of targeting neighborhoods, even if only for political strategy. "Challengers have a right to question whether a person is properly eligible to vote," he said. "They can't focus on one particular neighborhood because they think these people are going to vote against them."

For the Democrats, the process of examining provisional ballots in a few towns made it appear to them that the Republicans had done just that.

Said Schroeder: "I stopped objecting when the ridiculous turned to the sublime. When they challenged 56 out of the first 61 votes out of Pleasantville, I just thought, 'This is beyond.' No judge, no neutral third party, can look at these and give countenance to this."

Republican Party attorney Lafferty denied anything improper. "Residency is a fundamental basis to challenge the vote," he said. "The integrity of the process is what needs to be protected."

The board did vote 4-0 to consider whether evidence presented from postelection canvassing could be considered.

Some objections appeared legitimate, as with one address in Pleasantville where Republicans said the homeowner told them nobody by that voter's name had ever lived there. That woman repeated that in an interview at her home Thursday.

But another claim appeared mistaken, as with an address on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Atlantic City that the GOP said was an adult bookstore but is, as Democrats asserted, an apartment building.

Although agreeing to take a deeper look at how to verify voter registrations in the future, Dunn seemed wary. "We can look at the issue," she said, but, "I don't want the board to be chasing voters and intimidating voters."

The board will meet Monday afternoon to open the additional ballots Mendez said should be counted.


arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453

@amysrosenberg

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