Newark, NJ--Five Newark council candidates have filed suit against the City of Newark Clerk's Office and City Clerk Kenneth Louis, alleging they are wrongfully being barred from getting certified and claiming voter suppression.
Council-at-Large candidates David Walsh, Shakima Thomas and Donna Jackson, South Ward candidate Wilbur Ross and East Ward candidate Debra Salters filed the complaints in Superior Court Wednesday, alleging that Louis improperly invalidated voter registration ballots submitted for certification for the May 8 Municipal Election.
Walsh said he submitted 1,527 petitions—more than the required 1,413 petitions--but that Louis threw out 970 of those, stating they were invalid and “blatantly nonconforming” to state election law.
A petition of nomination must be supported by the signature of a registered voter, along with the voter's printed name and address.
“You should understand that anyone who knowingly and willfully defrauds or attempts to defraud the citizenry their right to a fair and impartial election by submission of knowingly false petitions of nominations is subject to criminal prosecution and imprisonment,” Louis said in a letter to Walsh.
Louis allegedly informed Walsh that the majority of people who signed his petitions were non-registered voters, were no longer living in Newark or living out of district and that some the signatures did not match up to the signatures on record.
But Walsh, who has been an outspoken critic of the Baraka administration, said he and the other candidates checked on the validity of Louis’ claims, alleging that many of the petitions deemed invalid by Louis were, indeed, valid.
An Essex County Board of Elections representative said that although the county is not involved in municipal elections, the county's Commissioner of Registration sometimes works with the municipal clerk to help validate submitted petitions and noted that issues can arise when it is discovered that voters are not registered, are living at a different address or if the signatures don't match, among other issues.
“This is voter fraud and voter suppression,” Walsh said. “City Hall and the clerk’s office are not advocating for us as Newarkers. They’re advocating for those who are sitting in those seats. I wanted to run for council because the city is corrupt. People know nationally about Newark. That's sad."
Walsh said when he asked to examine the petitions, he was told by the clerk's office that he needed to file an OPRA request.
Walsh said he was up against the March 5 deadline to submit petitions and could not wait for the request to be fulfilled.
Instead, Walsh spent the better part of four hours at city hall taking pictures of his 970 petitions deemed invalid before Louis attempted to stop him.
Walsh said he informed Louis that he would be taking legal action and asked that he get his petitions before the March 5 deadline.
"Then out of the blue I get a phone call later that night," Walsh said. "It was Kenneth Louis saying, 'Hey, can you meet me at ShopRite so I can give you copies of your petitions?"
TAPinto Newark has obtained video of the meeting, which took place in a darkened parking lot outside of a Newark ShopRite. In the video, Louis is seen taking cardboard boxes out of the trunk of his car and handing them over to Walsh.
In the video, Louis tells Walsh that many Newark residents are not actually registered to vote yet often tell candidates they are when asked to sign petitions.
"There are people working for candidates taking shortcuts," Louis said.
Louis also noted that if a registered voter has not voted in two presidential elections, they are removed from the register and must re-register to vote.
In response to a TAPinto inquiry regarding Walsh, Louis said the candidate had been allowed to review the petitions.
"The candidate has the right to review the petitions which he has done, he also purchased copies," Louis said.
Louis did not respond to a request for comment regarding the complaint.
Salters, who needed 163 petitions in her bid to get certified, was originally running as a Central Ward candidate until she allegedly received a call from the clerk’s office informing her that she, in fact, lived in the East Ward, not the Central Ward, due to a redistricting in 2012.
“This was done back in 2012,” Salters said. “No one was told that it was redistricted back in 2012. The people at City Hall couldn’t explain it. I thought I lived in the Central ward and I needed 212 petitions, then five days later I was told I lived in the East Ward. Then they told me I was registered in the North Ward. I was given the runaround.”
According to Salters, Louis told her many of her petitions were signed by non-registered residents.
“I checked with the Hall of Records and many of them were registered,” Salters said. “These people know I’ve been an activist in this city for many years, they know me personally. They don’t like me because I know the information. The two people for sure that they don’t want to see on that ballot is me and Donna Jackson.”
Thomas, who is already certified, said she was joining in the complaint because of what she believes is a flawed process and lack of transparency.
“When I met the other group and heard what they went through, I wanted to join them,” she said. “This isn’t how government should operate. They are not explaining the process. Is it fair and equitable for every candidate, or do you pick and choose?”
Thomas, who initially submitted 1,715 petitions, said they were collected carefully by a team of trusted individuals, including her parents but that Louis threw out 526 of them, allegedly suggesting to Thomas that members of her team had committed some form of fraud.
“He accused people on my team of getting the voter lists, copying down the names and forging their signatures," Thomas said. "How can you say that without proof?”
Thomas said she asked Louis for the petitions so she could examine them, but that Louis allegedly said he was unable to give them back.
“How do they verify these petitions?” Thomas said. “Do they have handwriting experts? Do they reach out to residents? The process is haphazard and vague and when you ask people questions they don’t know the answers.”
Thomas believes there needs to be more transparency and that Newark taxpayers deserve it.
"I'm a homeowner, I pay my taxes," she said. "The clerk's office needs to do their job because that's what they signed up for. I feel like, yeah, I'm certified, but at the same time it wasn't done in a fair way. I really encourage others who are certified to share their stories. We shouldn't sit back and accept this just because we're certified."
There are 37 certified candidates vying for a seat on Newark's municipal council.