PATERSON, NJ – Remember this number – 328. That’s how many mail-in votes Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman garnered in Paterson City Council election in May. In that same race, Sonia Torres, the wife of the former mayor, had just 17 absentee votes and Aslon Goow 35.
If those numbers were to repeat themselves for this week’s special election, Akhtaruzzaman would surge past Goow and Torres and reclaim the council seat he lost in a court ruling in September. In other words, Torres’ 142-vote lead over Goow and her 246-vote advantage over Akhtaruzzaman are hardly safe.
“There are still a lot of votes out there that haven’t been counted yet,’’ said John Currie, chairman of the Passaic County Board of Elections. “We probably won’t be able to certify the results until after November 19.’’
The tabulation of the results will be complicated by special election rules implemented in New Jersey to ensure that voters would not be disenfranchised by the weather disaster that left millions of people without power. Moreover, the use of mail-in ballots seems to have become part of the political strategy used by 2nd Ward candidates, as participants say that as many as 1,000 absentee votes were cast in the special election.
“This is all unprecedented,’’ Currie said of the last-minutes changes made in state election regulations in response to the storm.
The numbers from the polls Tuesday night put Torres in front with 1,239, followed by Goow at 1,097, Akhtaruzzaman at 993 Maidul Islam at 515 and Zalal Uddin at 183.
"It's too early to tell,'' Torres said when asked whether she thought her lead would hold up.
There remain three types of ballots that have yet to be counted, Currie said.
First, there are the often controversial and always time-consuming provisional ballots. That’s the way people vote when they show up at an election site and there’s some discrepancy or question about their records. County election officials review all provisional counting those votes deemed valid and tossing the rest.
City officials say thousands of provisional ballots were filed in Paterson on Tuesday. But so far, officials are not sure how many were for the 2nd Ward and how many were valid.
The second category still being counted are votes submitted through email or fax under emergency provisions implemented because of the storm. Currie said the state emergency order required voters to request those ballots by 5 pm on Tuesday, but they would not have to file their votes through those means until the end of business on Fri., Nov. 9.
Finally, there are the mail-in ballots, also known as absentee. Those numbers throughout the area are higher than normal for two reasons. First, it was a presidential election, in which participation tends to be greater.
Secondly, under emergency provisions, folks were allowed to submit “mail-in” ballots in person at county offices during the weekend and on Monday. More than 600 people in Passaic County did that on Sunday alone.
Currie said the state’s executive order on this election said that any write-in ballots that get to the county offices by November 19 should be counted, as long as they were postmarked November 5. That means votes could keep coming in for another 12 days, depending on storm-related delays in the postal system.
The count of the mail-in ballots already has begun and some political insiders say the early numbers show Akhtaruzzaman gaining ground. The question is whether he’ll be able to cover enough ground to surmount Torres’ lead.
Several of the campaigns in the 2nd Ward acknowledged actively helping supporters fill out absentee ballots for their candidates. Henry Sosa, Akhtaruzzaman’s campaign manager, said he expected to get at least 347 extra votes through the mail-in ballots. Torres said she expected to get several hundred absentee votes. “We gave them the application and let them handle it,’’ she said.
Goow said he was concerned about widespread irregularities at the polls on Tuesday. He maintained that some people who showed up to vote were told they couldn’t because someone already had submitted an absentee on their behalf. In other instances, he asserted, people were allowed to vote who were not Paterson residents.
“We’ve got some big problems,’’ said Goow, who had represented the 2nd Ward for 12 years before he was beaten by Akhtaruzzaman in May. It was Goow’s successful lawsuit challenging Akhtaruzzaman’s candidacy that resulted in the need for the special election.
“I’m not sitting on a pile of cash that I can keep challenging every time,’’ the former councilman said. “If Sonia Torres wins, you know what, I’ll probably call it a day,’’ he added.
Sosa, meanwhile, said the Akhtaruzzaman camp would not mind if Torres ended up the winner. “If Sonia Torres becomes councilwoman, Mohammed will be working with her from Day 1,’’ Sosa said.
Sosa asserted that a victory for Torres or Akhtaruzzaman would send the message that “the voters of the 2nd Ward do not want Aslon Goow as their councilman.’’
Indeed, it seems that Torres benefited from the battle between Goow and Akhtaruzzaman. “She kept her campaign clean and positive,’’ said her husband, Jose “Joey” Torres, the former mayor. “She was the only one talking about issues and talking about a platform.’’