BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS & KATE ALBRIGHT
By Nov. 2, the day before Election Day, the Essex County Board of Elections reported that 19,000 Montclairians had already voted via mail-in ballots. In the 2016 election, 21,000 had voted in Montclair so voter advocates say 2020 has already had a tremendous voter turnout amid pandemic and mostly mail-in election.
In this historic presidential, pandemic election, voters had three options to cast the ballots they received by mail — post office, ballot drop box or polling place. They could also vote by provisional ballot in person. Montclair offered polling places at Buzz Aldrin, Northeast, Edgemont, Hillside and Nishuane schools, the municipal building and fire department headquarters. Both polls and the drop box were shut at 8 p.m.
The nonpartisan League of Women Voters, with its motto “Empowering voters, defending democracy,” started its voter registration campaign early this year at supermarkets, laundromats, food giveaways and rallies. They also went to detention centers for the first time to educate prisoners on the newly restored ballot access for people on parole or probation in New Jersey, passed in March. The league doubled their number from last year, registering 672 Essex County voters. They also increased their membership by one-third.
“Everyone feels so helpless today, and they felt helping the league to register more voters and educate voters on how to get their vote counted was something they could do to help,” said league President Elizabeth Milner.
League Vice President Susan Mack said being a nonpartisan group has never been so important. Even so, Milner said, with “everything so politicalized” it was a challenging year, as their mission is to grow voter numbers and give everyone the ability to vote. By September, Essex County had gained 14,482 new registered voters.
The league’s other message was how to properly vote by mail so that the vote is counted — and to vote early. In Montclair, the message may have worked, as most poll workers reported low numbers at polling places.
However, lines at Hillside and Buzz Aldrin at 6:30 a.m. were a little long as voters waited to drop their ballots off in person rather than use the ballot drop box, and some were confused by not being able to cast a vote using a machine.
Some had no choice but to vote in person due to not receiving their ballots in the mail, like Jill Sherwood. She filled out a provisional ballot Tuesday at the municipal building and was relieved that the lines weren’t long.
Others chose to vote in person, concerned that their vote be counted after the problems with votes being rejected in Montclair’s May election, which was the first to be mail-in only.
“We knew it would actually get counted by us being here. We thought it was a good idea to personally be here and hand it to someone and trust that it will be counted,” said Anthony, who did not give his last name.
Donna King has been a poll worker for at least 10 years, following in the footsteps of many of her relatives. She said early morning at Hillside was very busy, with a very slow rest of the day.
“People are voting. That’s inspiring. People are concerned. They want to see the change they want to see,” King said.
On Tuesday first-time voter Alisha Parker walked to the ballot drop box to vote in this year’s election.
“This is my first time voting, and I’m honestly pretty nervous about the outcome of this one. It’s very big right now, especially for my generation. I want to make sure I get out there and make sure that my voice and my opinions are heard today,” Parker said.
Tania Richards, who had cast a ballot earlier in the week, showed up at Hillside to offer help to people if the lines were long. Her employer, Johnson & Johnson, gave her four hours off to vote. “So I figured in my civic way — I had water, I had a chair. I was going to help any old people that need anything, and that’s not quite what this has turned out to be, which is fine. But I’m still checking in. I want to make sure everybody’s good,” Richards said.
Voters were not only voting for the next POTUS, but also on another historic question: whether to legalize marijuana in New Jersey.
Essex County voters overwhelmingly chose Democratic candidates in the election. In the presidential race, whose outcome was undetermined as of press time, 206,048 votes were cast for Joe Biden, while Donald Trump got 56,149.
In the Senate race, 200,374 votes went to Cory Booker, compared to 53,243 for Rikin Mehta.
For the 10th and 11th districts, which encompass Montclair, Donald Payne won the 10th district with 108,155 votes, over Jennifer Zinone’s 8,903. Mikie Sherrill won the 11th district with 61,901 votes over Rosemary Becchi’s 34,882.
Patricia Sebold, Rufus Johnson, Romaine Graham and Montclairian Brendan Gill were all elected in the Board of Chosen Freeholders at-large race. Christopher Durkin was reelected as county clerk with 198,395 votes, over Kristina Christoforou, with 51,872. Carlos Pomares won 48,840 votes in the race for fifth-district freeholder.
Voters also approved the three public questions: to legalize the possession and use of marijuana, 176,159 to 69,092; to make peacetime veterans eligible to receive the veterans’ property tax deduction, 195,262 to 44,826; and to delay the state legislative redistricting process if census data is received after Feb. 15, 159,315 to 72,428.
Days to come
Residents have formed an ad-hoc group, Protect the Vote Montclair, and have preemptively organized a rally to be held on Friday at 3 p.m. in Watchung Plaza if any candidate tries to undermine the presidential election or prevent every vote from being counted. But it’s an event the organizers hope to cancel, said John Sullivan.
“Organizers are hopeful that the integrity of the election will be protected, that the rule of law will stand, and that the rally will be unnecessary,” Sullivan said.
For many, however, the waiting and the unknown over the next weeks or months will be stressful.
“I am just worried about the aftermath, if that’s going to cause a lot of problems, if there’s going to be any kind of rioting or anything. Just a little nervous about the outcome,” said voter Jennifer O’Neill.
Richards also said she is concerned about some anarchy.
“I’m worried about some stuff happening later. I just know there’s going to be a shift one way or another. And it’s just concerning. My daughter was telling me that folks in the city have boarded up their stores and stuff. They’re expecting there to be some mayhem,” Richards said.
King is hoping for a peaceful future for America.
“I’m just hoping that people will peaceably accept what change or not that there is. Even if you’re not crazy about the outcome, peaceably, let’s just try to work to make the country better,” she said.
Anthony said a larger voter turnout in 2020 could help the change that’s needed. “The political unrest is just the period at the end of the sentence for me,” he said. “It’s not time to be silent and just watch things happen. I think voting is speaking as loud as we can.”
Another effort by the League of Women Voters and the state NAACP will now allow voters an ability to cure rejected ballots. The two groups filed a complaint in May against New Jersey’s secretary of state asking for this “curing” of ballots, as is done in other states but had not been in New Jersey.
The courts agreed to allow for voters to cure any rejected ballots in July, and the governor extended that agreement for the November election. But voters will only be given the opportunity to cure their ballots due to issues with signatures. Those voters will be sent a form to cure their ballot. The form must be sent back by Nov. 18.
All ballots being returned through the U.S. Postal Service must carry a postmark by Nov. 3 and be received by the county clerk no later than 8 p.m. one week later, on Tuesday, Nov. 10. Ballots that lack postmarks due to postal error but are received by 8 p.m. today will be considered valid.
Residents can track their ballots at nj.gov/state/elections/vote-track-my-ballot.