By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Photos and video by Kate Albright
On July 1, the day Montclair’s new mayor and council were being sworn in, 1,086 ballots fluttered in the wind outside of town hall — the number of ballots that were not counted and rejected in the May 12 mail-in only election.
COVID-19 and the governor’s lockdown brought about many challenges in this year’s Montclair council election: no door-to-door campaigning, virtual-only candidates forums and the closure of all polling places on Election Day for the first time in history.
But that didn’t deter Montclair voters, with 10,946 of Montclair’s 30,093 registered voters mailing in ballots as of the deadline of May 14, representing a 36-percent turnout. (In the November 2019 election, only 6,798 Montclairians cast votes.)
However, 1,086 of those ballots were rejected, according to the Essex County Clerk’s office due to problems including a 48-hour window between the mail-in postmark deadline and the final count of votes, slower-than-usual mail service, and the early closure of the Montclair post office on Election Day due to staff shortages.
The Montclair League of Women Voters and NAACP, nonpartisan organizations, held a demonstration outside town hall Wednesday morning prior to the swearing in of the new council, in protest of the rejected ballots. League Vice President and Voter Registration Co-Chair Susan Mack said the demonstration was not in any way a statement about the election results in Montclair, but rather in favor of a healthy democracy where all votes are counted.
“The League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area and the NAACP of Montclair held the event to emphasize the disturbing fact that 10 percent of the votes cast in the Montclair election were not counted and to press for changes to avoid this happening again. The League and the NAACP are committed to overcoming barriers to voting and ensuring every vote is counted, especially in the upcoming primary and general elections. This is not a statement about the election results, but rather an attempt to call attention to the vital issue of voting rights,” said Mack.
Wednesday’s protest was from 10-10:30 a,m., with the swearing in scheduled for 11:45. All council members were alerted to the event, said Mack.
The demonstration follows efforts by the League and the state NAACP to press for changes for the mostly mail-in primary election on July 7, and the possibly-mail-only general election in November. The two groups filed a complaint in May against New Jersey’s secretary of state asking that a procedure be established by which voters are notified if their ballots are rejected and then be given an opportunity to “cure” their ballots to get them counted as is done in other states. The organizations won part of the battle when the courts agreed to allow for voters to cure any rejected ballots in July. A permanent solution is still being fought in the courts.
Governor Phil Murphy also has given the primaries a larger window for returns of one week after election day.
In the mayoral race, Third Ward Councilman Sean Spiller edged Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renee Baskerville by 195 votes. The other competitive council races saw margins of victory between 294 and 458 votes.
In May, 15 Montclair residents, including mayoral candidate Baskerville, filed a complaint asking Essex County officials to count and include the votes rejected in Montclair’s municipal election. The plaintiffs in the suit contend that their ballots were postmarked by election day, May 12, but were disallowed.