MONTCLAIR, NJ - Covid-19 has affected everything from business to politics.

Tapinto Montclair spoke to Mayor-Elect Sean Spiller on May 31st to discuss whether he felt all voices were heard on election day and what his thoughts are on the efficacy of voting by mail. Councilor Renee Baskerville, who also ran for mayor of Montclair in a two-person mayoral race, also provided input into her thoughts on the election. Baskerville has vowed to challenge the vote count due to numerous discrepancies with mail-in ballots. Her first hearing on the matter is on Wednesday.

Spiller said the record turnout was a testament that the system works. “When you talk about 11,000 or so ballots cast and 56 didn’t make it in by election day, I think that’s pretty darn good.”

Sign Up for Montclair Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

Baskerville has asserted that since she has identified at least 15 people from various wards across Montclair, then that should be enough evidence to overturn the election decision.

Baskerville said, "On May 29, 2020, on behalf of fifteen named plaintiffs, and other identified and yet to be identified plaintiffs who were voters in the April 21-May 12, 2020 Montclair Non-Partisan Municipal Elections, I filed a complaint in the New Jersey Superior Court, in an effort to get the State of New Jersey to ensure that every ballot cast is fully and fairly counted."

Baskerville asserted, "At the time of filing, the record reflected that 10,748 ballots had been cast for Mayor of Montclair."

"I was certified as having 5,250 votes or 48.85% of the votes cast. The other candidate for mayor was certified as having 5,445 votes or 50.66% of votes cast. More ballots than the 195 vote margin separating the mayoral candidates, remain uncounted. A sufficient number of uncounted ballots remain to make the outcome of the election uncertain in the mayoral contest, and others."

Anecdotal evidence from Facebook posts and discussions on social media indicated that number was up for debate among many residents. 

Chris Durkin, Essex County Clerk, weighed-in on what all the numbers really mean.

The attached PDF is a public document that has circulated showing the number of votes that did not make it on time. 

The issue at hand is that every registered voter should be sent a ballot, their vote must be signed and postmarked by May 12 and the post office must have it back to the board of elections by May 14th for the count to be certified on May 18th. Both conditions must be met, Durkin said.

Close to 1000 votes did not make it by the cutoff date, according to county officials.

Other votes were rejected due to some type of irregularity. For example, if the signature does not seem to match that of the voter registration, as was the case with Richard Stanton and his daughter, the voter is notified of the denial. An irregularity on a ballot is determined and reviewed by 2 Republicans and 2 Democrats on the election board. 

If, however, this entire process is not complete by the day the election is called, those votes can no longer be counted. Once the vote count is certified the only remedy is through the court system, Durkin stated. 

There appears to be a legislative and policy issue in terms of how the voter is notified and how much time they have to rectify the issues that come up. Perhaps that and the number of irregularities were what lead Mayoral candidate Renee Baskerville to file a motion with the court this past May 29th.

According to NJ Globe, the U.S. Postal Service delivered 1,371 new ballots from Montclair on May 14, tow days after the May 12 deadline. This added a total of 2,913 additional votes that came in after the May 12 deadline.

The delay caused officials to delay the process in certifying the election results. According to New Jersey law, as long as ballots were postmarked by 8PM on May 12, they were to be counted. 

According to multiple reports, residents have stated that the post office closed four hours earlier than planned on May 12 and there have also been reports of ballots taking a week or more to be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

Baskervile stated, "We brought the action on information and belief that there are roughly1086 ballots in possession of the Essex County Clerk’s Office, that have not been counted: 404 ballots in possession of the Clerk’s Office that were determined to have signatures that are not in alignment with other signatures on file for the voter. They were not counted. There are roughly 191-256 ballots in the possession of Essex County Clerk’s office with no postmark, that were not counted. Between 263 and 267 ballots are believed to be in the possession of the Clerk’s Office with postmarks indicating that they were posted on May 13th, one day after the May 12th cut-date;  others reflecting a later date of receipt. Still other ballots are believed to be in the Office of the Clerk that have not been counted for other reasons that we would like to explore."

Since the Board of Elections did not take into consideration the extenuating factors raised by residents' accounts, Baskerville has vowed to challenge the certification of the election.

Also, if the Federal Government blocks emergency funding for the U.S. Postal Service, this could undermine vote-by-mail efforts across the country this year.

Local resident Richard Stanton was just one example of a family with votes that could not be counted by the cutoff date.

Stanton said, "There are three voters in his household. Myself and my daughter came back that signatures did not match.”

While his daughter is a new voter, he is a long time registered voter. “I registered when I was 18. I had a very careful signature back then. I didn’t even think about that when signing my name on the ballot.”

When he got word that his vote was rejected, he was able to sign an affidavit. As an extra measure, he had affixed his license photo at the bottom so there would be no question and he resubmitted. The affidavit was postmarked well after the deadline, therefore, could not have been counted. 

When asked if he thought there might be a recount situation, Spiller replied, “My opponent is free to do whatever she chooses to do and I’ve never been one to predict what that might be.”

He also said the numbers are verifiable and went on to discuss other issues. “We’ve got to get everyone back to work, we have to make sure everyone is safe, we have so many things to do and that’s what I am focused on.”

With the numbers of infections still on the rise in Essex County and as leaders brace for reopening safely, Spiller noted that Governor Murphy's executive order overrides local action and he deferred to state guidelines, but added, “It’s important to understand the governor's guidance whereby masks have to be worn where social distancing norms can’t be followed.” 

Mayor-elect Spiller noted that as things move to local control he has started to define a task force made of nonprofit leaders, small businesses, government leaders, interfaith groups and more to continue to do things safely and stimulate our economy by maximizing aid from the government, as well as dollars built up in Montclair Township reserves. 

Going back to the topic of voting by mail during a pandemic, Spiller weighed-in on voter fraud allegations from residents whose votes were rejected.

Spiller said, “You’ve got to make sure you’ve got the safeguards...you’ve got to check signatures, you’ve got to do the things you've got to do to make sure it’s a valid process but then you’ve got to count on the results.”

He applauded Governor Murphy’s action. “Whether someone likes this or not, it is absolutely the way you need to go when you are in the middle of a pandemic that can kill hundreds of thousands of people, you can’t show up in person and put people at risk.”

Though Spiller had never voted by mail, he expressed that he will get used to it, if necessary. “The more you do vote-by-mail, the more you become accustomed to it.”

He urged anyone who had questions about their ballot to reach out to Durkin.