Karen Mack, 65, uses the electronic voting system at Buzz Aldrin Middle School with the help of a poll worker. (DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA/STAFF)

UPDATE: A voting machine at Buzz Aldrin Middle School for Montclair’s Ward 1, District 6 broke down around 6 p.m.

By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA, TALIA WIENER and LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
news@montclairlocal.news

At several Montclair polling locations Tuesday, workers and voters alike said things seemed slow and calm — even with a contentious referendum question on the Montclair ballot and a closer-than-once expected governor’s race being decided on the statewide stage. 

But many of those weighing in on this year’s decisions didn’t need to go to the polls on Election Day at all. It’s the first year New Jersey has allowed early voting. And as of Monday, the Essex County Clerk’s office had received 2,915 of 5,982 requested mail-in ballots — a return rate so far of just under 49% — according to a database readout the clerk provided to Montclair Local.

Early in the day, members of community organizations that often keep close tabs on elections said they’d seen just minor issues. However, a voting machine at Buzz Aldrin Middle School for Montclair’s Ward 1, District 6 broke down around 6 p.m. Voters continued casting provisional ballots, to be counted after Election Day. No tallies — including those announced by media or campaigns on Election Night, based on results known so far — are considered official until votes are certified.

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Cary Chevat, the communications chair of the Montclair NAACP as well as the corresponding secretary for the Montclair Democratic County Committee, said earlier there were a few machines that were late to start working, and construction on Bloomfield Avenue obstructed some voters trying to get to a polling place at the Montclair Fire Department on Pine Street. Christa Rapoport, chair of the Montclair Civil Rights Commission, said county officials were aware of the issue, and Montclair Police Department officers were on site helping residents get through a detour.

“Voting has been light as of this morning, but Montclair tends to vote late, so I expect that voting to pick-up later in the day,” Chevat said. Overall, he said, the day seemed to be going smoothly.

Carmel Loughman, communications chair of the Montclair League of Women Voters, said she found an updated process for voting in person “very cumbersome, but hopefully it has enough checks and balances to dissuade anyone from challenging the validity of an election.”

The new process involves electronic poll books, replacing traditional paper ones. The check-in process on the electronic poll books keeps a voter from doubling up with a previous mail-in or early vote. Those who’ve registered to vote by mail, but whose mail-in ballots haven’t yet been received, are given provisional ballots to fill out. Those are tabulated once mail-ins arrive and are counted, to rule out the possibility of a duplicated vote. 

It also involves electronic systems that automatically tabulate ballots voters first fill out by hand.

Poll workers, from left, Carlotta Howard, Cheryl K. Young and Judith Mills at Glenfield Middle School. (DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA/STAFF)

The League is among the groups that has staked out a position in what may be the biggest issue for Montclair voters — a referendum question asking if the community’s school district should change from a Type I system, with a mayor-appointed board of education, to a Type II system, with an elected one. It would also expand the school board from seven to nine members, and disband the separate Board of School Estimate, which approves school budgets, and which fixes costs for capital improvements before sending them to the Township Council for bonding. In a Type II system, budgets would typically be approved by the school board, but would be sent to voters if they exceed a 2% cap on yearly property levy growth. Capital improvement bonds would go to referendums.

Elected or appointed BOE? Breaking down the issue

The League favors the appointed system, but advocates for an advisory committee to make recommendations to the mayor — in part a response to concerns that the current mayor, Sean Spiller, is also president of the powerful New Jersey Education Association, which some in the community argue is a conflict. It says low turnout means school board elections aren’t always representative of communities, and that a mayor can select members with a diverse selection of backgrounds and skills. It also warns voters 

The referendum question was the result of a successful petition by Vote Montclair, which argues a series of school board elections — for three seats in any one year — can better protect the district against outside campaign money or special interests than a single mayor’s election every four years. The group also says elected boards are more accountable to residents.

Karen Mack, 65, came to Buzz Aldrin Middle School for in-person voting. She said the board of education question has been a hot topic.

“People who have lived in this town understand how our school system works,” Mack said. “New residents that just moved here don’t understand it.”

Roosevelt Weaver, 84 and retired principal in the East Orange school system, said he voted for an elected board of education because he wants the community to have a voice. 

“Actually, I feel that voting for a board of education is very important because local residents have a right to vote for someone that can do the right work,” Weaver said. “The voters know the community and the needs of the child in the community.”

At a polling place at Hillside Elementary School, Holly Shaw, 46, said she wanted to show her three children the importance of voting. She said she voted for an elected school board because “I think we have some amazing parents in town that will make a good board.”

Julie Marchin, 69, said she supports an appointed school board because “it will keep the politics and dark money out of school.”

Sam Barking, 58, said he was most motivated by the race for governor. He said he liked what Murphy’s been doing so far. Barking said even though the polls have been showing that both candidates have strong support, he said he is not worried the current governor won’t be reelected.

Barking said he wasn’t previously aware of the ballot’s referendum questions — in addition to the Montclair question, two statewide initiatives ask whether betting should be allowed on college sport competitions, and whether more types of organizations should be able to use raffle proceeds to raise money for themselves — but he supports an elected board.

“The bottom line is that the vast majority of the other towns that have an elected board haven’t fallen apart,” Barking said. “It might be rough during the transition period but it will be fine.”

At Glenfield Middle School, Adlyn Kerr, 73, said she came to vote to re-elect Murphy because “he has been doing a good job.”

“I feel that I like [Murphy’s] policy and what he has done for New Jersey,” Nick Sotomayor, 54, said.

Lisa King, 61, said her main reason for voting is because it’s a privilege people in many countries — particularly women — don’t have.

She came out for the governor’s race, to support Murphy.

The president of the Montclair Republican Club, John Van Wagner, said he didn’t observe anything irregular when he went to vote in the morning. But, he said he didn’t like the use of Sharpies at voting sites.

“I have to say the use of Sharpies to mark the vote, the lack of privacy when feeding the ballot into the machines (the attendant can clearly see who you voted for), and the use of Dominion voting equipment … all combined to make it feel like an insecure experience,” Wagner wrote to Montclair Local in an email. “The Sharpies bleed through the page, so whether or not the ballot is turned over, anyone can see what line a voter marked. And it’s next to impossible to write in candidates using the Sharpies.”

During the 2020 election, parties alleging voter fraud or irregularities cited the use of Sharpies to mark ballots in some states — particularly Arizona — claiming machines couldn’t read the ballots (though that’s not a claim Van Wagner made). The assertion was also a viral meme on social media networks. A Reuters fact check found voting machines had no trouble reading ballots marked with Sharpies, and the Associated Press debunked claims ballots with Sharpies had been invalidated.

Dominion Voting systems are among multiple types certified by the State of New Jersey. Dominion has sued parties including Fox News, and former Donald Trump lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani over their false claims the company’s machines rigged votes against the former president. A judge hasn’t yet ruled on Fox’s request to have the lawsuit dismissed.

In-person polling locations are open until 8 p.m. and listed on the township’s website, montclairnjusa.org. Select “Government,” “Municipal Clerk” and “Elections.” The township also has an interactive map of polling locations linked from its site, and they’re listed at the New Jersey Division of Elections website at nj.gov/state/elections as well. Contact the municipal clerk’s office for polling location questions at 973-509-4900.

Mail-in ballots can be postmarked today, Nov. 2, but must be received by the Essex Board of Elections on or before Nov. 8.

They can be returned to the Election Office in person, at 495 Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd. in Newark, in the Dr. Martin Justice Building Room, until 8 p.m. 

They can also be returned in any of several secure drop boxes located throughout the county until 8 p.m. In Montclair, there are drop boxes at the municipal building at 205 Claremont Ave., and at Montclair State University at 1 Normal Ave. (on College Avenue, in Lot No. 8).

An earlier version of this post included a quote misattributed to Montclair resident Steven Sander. The quote has been removed.