Newark to elect new board members amid reported ballot problems

Newarkers both picked up and dropped off ballots for the school board election at the Essex County elections office Tuesday. Though the election was all vote-by-mail, some residents reportedly didn’t receive ballots. (Photo courtesy: Shennell McCloud)

As Newark votes by mail Tuesday to fill three school board seats, some residents and advocates are reporting that they never got a ballot in their mailbox. 

It’s unclear how widespread the problems were. The Essex County clerk said Tuesday that this year’s turnout has been comparable to last year and might end up being higher. Ballots must be postmarked no later than 8 p.m. Tuesday, and final results are expected in the coming days.

Postponed from April by Gov. Phil Murphy’s state order, Newark’s all vote-by-mail board election will decide who will fill three of nine seats on the school board and whether to approve a tax hike to fund the school system. The pandemic has prevented candidates from campaigning in person and raised concerns about turnout in a city where it already tends to be historically low — last year, less than 5% of Newarkers voted in the school board election.

The clerk’s office began mailing ballots April 21, sending a total of 155,000 — or one for every registered voter, the clerk said Tuesday. But some Newarkers — including a Chalkbeat reporter — say they never received one and expressed confusion about how to request a replacement. 

Independent board candidate Ronnie Kellam heard from “a lot of people” who didn’t receive their ballots, while independent board candidate Phil Wilson drove several voters who didn’t receive ballots to the Essex County Board of Elections office Tuesday.

“I am truly worried about the election results,” Kellam said. 

Local education advocate Yolanda Johnson didn’t receive a mail-in ballot and said she’s made several phone calls to the Essex County Board of Elections office to no avail. Some families who reached out to her reported the same. 

“I’m not disappointed… because I’m not surprised at all,” she said. “I said weeks ago that the election needs to be done later in the year because there are going to be issues with it.” 

Newarkers who didn’t receive a ballot can go to the elections office to pick up a replacement ballot, but out of fear of the coronavirus, some told Chalkbeat they are staying home.

“Unfortunately, I’m not going to vote because I’m not going to go down there,” former school board candidate Johnnie Lattner, who was not mailed a ballot. “You have to make a choice between voting and risk catching the virus. I don’t think it’s fair to the people.” (Lattner is a member of Chalkbeat’s reader advisory board.)

Marcia Paige, whose daughter is a 6th-grader at Ridge Street School, has been checking her mailbox and “never once saw” it. She also wasn’t able to reach anyone at the elections office, she said. 

Paige has voted in Newark school board elections for the past 20 years and said this is the first time she’s run into problems. 

“This saddens me,” she said. “They need to reschedule this election so everyone is able to vote. I don’t feel like I have a voice now.”

Essex County Clerk Christopher Durkin told Chalkbeat that his office had received more than 8,000 ballots as of 6 p.m. Tuesday, a voter turnout rate of just over 5%. Some additional ballots may trickle in over the next two days, he added. 

Durkin acknowledged that some voters have experienced challenges with the all-mail-in election. More than 200 Newark voters have visited the clerk’s office since Friday to request ballots, and the office has experienced a high call volume over the past several days, Durkin said, adding that his staff has tried their best to return as many calls as possible.

“Are there issues? Yes,” Durkin said in an interview Tuesday evening, suggesting that some voters may have unintentionally thrown out their ballots. “But if people feel they’re not heard, I can’t sleep, and I apologize.”

County officials say they’ll post tentative election results on the clerk’s website Tuesday night at 8:30 p.m., but final results won’t be in until as late as Monday because mailed-in ballots will be counted through 8 p.m. Thursday. 

Voters who did not receive ballots can pick one up in person at the Newark Board of Elections office Tuesday until 7:30 p.m. and either mail it back or hand deliver it.

This story was updated to reflect an interview with Essex County Clerk Christopher Durkin.

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