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By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN, TALIA WIENER and JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
news@montclairlocal.news

Though members of local political and community groups that keep a close eye on elections say things largely went smoothly at the polls in Montclair on Election Day, some residents reported running into trouble.

Most notably, a voting machine at Buzz Aldrin Middle School for Montclair’s Ward 1, District 6 broke down around 6 p.m. Councilman Bob Russo said he was told poll workers were continuing to collect and secure ballots from voters. Procedure calls for emergency ballots, a separate form, to be collected if a machine breaks down.

Cary Chevat, the communications chair of the Montclair NAACP as well as the corresponding secretary for the Montclair Democratic County Committee, said the machine was back up after about 45 minutes.

A representative from the Essex County Board of Elections declined to comment on the broken machine.

It can be difficult to confirm the details one-off accounts of trouble from other residents, but Montclair Local heard from a handful who said they weren’t allowed to cast normal ballots despite expecting to do so. Some issues may come down to misunderstandings either by voters, or by the poll workers they spoke to. Further messages with the Essex County Clerk and the Essex County Board of Elections late Tuesday and Wednesday, to discuss their accounts, haven’t yet been returned.

Two residents told Montclair Local poll workers ran out of standard ballots at Charles Bullock School, where some Third Ward residents were voting. They were given provisional ballots, the residents said.

“I’m concerned my vote won’t be counted properly because the officials didn’t do the best job explaining why we needed these ballots,” Brian DiFeo wrote to Montclair Local by email. “For example there are four options to choose from when filling out the form, ‘Why am I using a provisional ballot.’ But since there was no option describing the current situation they told us to write in that they ran out of ballots.”

Resident Victoria Surgent said the same happened to her at Bullock, and provided a photo of her provisional ballot affirmation statement, with a handwritten line saying the site had run out of ballots. Surgent had been voting as a resident in Ward 3, District 2. She said she’d also seen her provisional ballot put in a pile with others and not in a secure folder.

But Chevat, in an email to Montclair Local said there was “no way they ran out of ballots,” as polling sites had runners available all day. Anyone handed a provisional ballot, he said, would have received one because he or she had already received a mail-in ballot or had come to the wrong district.

Some districts were closed and consolidated into others this year, causing confusion for some voters. A past voting site at the Edgemont Park House was closed, and residents used to voting there were told to go to Edgemont School, Chevat noted. He said the township’s website hadn’t initially noted that change, but after Councilman Peter Yacobellis flagged the problem early in the day, that was fixed.

Another voter, Adine Duron, ran into issues that she found confusing — but an exchange with Montclair Local may have cleared up some of the matter.

Duron said she and her husband were given provisional ballots at Bradford School, where they went to vote as residents of Ward 1, District 2 (after years of voting at the firehouse on Valley Road), even though they were on the voter rolls. She said she was told it was “based on address.”

However, a list of requested and returned vote by mail ballots provided by County Clerk Chris Durkin earlier this week showed Duron was sent a vote-by-mail ballot, after first applying for one in 2019. Individuals who request vote-by-mail ballots in a given year have the option of automatically being sent the ballots in future elections. Duron said by email Wednesday she had no recollection of checking a box to receive future ballots in the mail, “but it clears up my question of why I was on a list saying I could not vote on the machine.”

Still, she said, she never received a ballot in the mail (she figures that may be because of issues with the mail service). And she’d like to know why her voting location moved after several years.

“A big problem yesterday was most everyone near me in line was asked what district we were in, and no one knew, and that added to the confusion because they had doubled up on the districts. At the firehouse we were all in the Second [District of Ward 1] so it did not add a new layer of indecision about what line to get into,” she said. “The workers were nice and tried to be fair about the lines but there seemed to be no one in charge and the atmosphere was disorganized.”

Duron said the “combination of a new voting system, a new polling place, new procedures around [vote by mail], and coming at the after work rush hour led to the problem I had.”

She also said a number she was given to check whether her provisional ballot was accepted hadn’t worked. The official number, 1-877-NJVOTER (1-877-658-6837), did indeed appear to work as of Wednesday afternoon.

Provisional votes are counted before totals are certified — provided no problems are found with the ballot, such as the same voter having already sent in a mail-in vote — but not until after Election Day. No tallies are considered official until votes are certified, even though media and campaigns often “call” elections when it appears remaining outstanding votes aren’t numerous enough to change an outcome.

Earlier in the day, some voters had difficulty getting to a polling place at the Montclair Fire Department on Pine Street because of nearby construction, Chevat said. Christa Rapoport, chair of the Montclair Civil Rights Commission, said Montclair police were on site helping residents make their way through.

Overall, early in the day, there seemed to be few if any issues, according to multiple people keeping tabs on the polls — Chevat, former Board of Education member and Vote Montclair member Sergio Gonzalez, and Montclair Republican Club president Jon Van Wagner.

But Van Wagner said he didn’t like the use of Sharpies at voting machines because he thought attendants could see whom residents voted for, and said it was “next to impossible” to write in candidates with the Sharpies. (Some viral memes in the 2020 election complained of the use of Sharpies in Arizona elections, falsely claiming voting machines couldn’t read them, but Van Wagner didn’t make any such claim.) 

He also said he didn’t feel secure with the use of Dominion Voting machines. Dominion is a state-certified election system vendor. Unfounded claims by allies of President Donald Trump that the machines were involved in voter fraud in 2020 prompted the company to sue two of the former president’s lawyers and Fox News; that lawsuit is ongoing. 

“Others have had problems similar to my own, just the unease of voting by Sharpie on a ballot visible to everyone, inserted into a Dominion machine,” he wrote to Montclair Local by email. “Voters should feel absolute confidence in the system. Yesterday was a disaster in that regard.”

Carmel Loughman, communications chair for the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area, 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, were given provisional ballots to fill out. Voters filled out their ballots by hand, to be fed into machines for automatic tabulation.

Those watching poll results Tuesday night also hit some snags. Essex County’s poll results site didn’t reflect any ballots cast on Election Day until about 11:30 p.m., when results from 31 of Montclair’s 35 districts all appeared at once. As of Wednesday afternoon, no more results had yet been posted.

Results from early votes and any vote-by-mail ballots that had already been received were posted shortly after polls closed at 8 p.m. — but all erroneously listed under Montclair’s Ward 1, District 1, regardless of where they actually came from.

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