PATERSON, NJ – The long-awaited outcome of Paterson’s vote-by-mail election could be known by Tuesday evening. That’s the deadline given to the Passaic County Board of Elections under a 7-day extension granted by New Jersey Superior Court Judge Joseph Portelli so workers had more time to finish its count.

In his order, Portelli said “considerable space constraints due to mandatory social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic,” coupled with an influx of ballots received on or after May 8 left the board unable to complete its count on Election Day.

On Monday afternoon a Passaic County official familiar with the process said that the county elections board was “working hard to count all ballots tomorrow,” but if “more time is necessary, then a judge’s order would be necessary.”

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As of May 14 – the last day for ballots to be postmarked and returned to the county - 16,747 voters have sent in their completed ballots, TAPinto Paterson learned.  

While the Board of Elections has typically had between 30 to 40 workers processing and counting ballots, social distancing brought on by the COVID-19 public health crisis has decreased that number to a third of what it usually us, one of the factors in a slower count. 

With a fraction of the results made available in the hours after polls would have closed on May 12 Incumbents Michael Jackson (1st Ward), Shahin Khalique (2nd Ward), Ruby Cotton (4th Ward), and Luis Velez (5th Ward) were ahead of their opponents, while challenger Alex Mendez was in the top position in the 3rd Ward race. Al Abdelaziz ran unopposed in Paterson’s 6th Ward. 

Adding to the complication of obtaining a final tally, Board of Elections spokesman Keith Furlong said, are more than 800 ballots that were set aside after the U.S. Postal Service notified the Board “about bundled vote-by-mail ballots within their possession.”

Furlong added that “any potential irregularities” discovered during the count “will be handed off to the appropriate law enforcement agencies”

While posts, photos and videos have abounded on social media purporting to show patterns of ballots being completed and returned in a fraudulent manner, as well as indications that law enforcement officials are looking into any improprieties, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office said he could not confirm or deny whether any investigations are currently underway regarding Paterson’s election.

Despite the lack of official confirmation, a source, asking that their name not be used as they are not authorized to speak to the matter, told TAPinto Paterson that “they have been here for months.”

Though his name didn’t appear on any ballots this year, Mayor Andre Sayegh is urging authorities to get to the bottom of what transpired as campaign’s sought to best their opponent’s vote total.

“We cannot allow a mockery to be made of democracy,” Sayegh said. “The integrity of our elections must be preserved.”

“I invite an investigation into numerous reports about an inordinate number of ballots placed into mailboxes.”

Following Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement in mid-March that all elections scheduled this spring would be conducted solely through vote-by-mail ballots due to the COVID-19 crisis, some of Paterson’s council candidates expressed support for the change. But others said they had concerns, given the city’s history with voters casting ballots by mail. 

In 2014, former councilman Rigo Rodriguez and his wife were entered into a pre-trial intervention program after facing charges of election fraud, mail-in ballot fraud, conspiracy and witness tampering, according to reports. Rodriguez and his wife, who managed his 2010 election campaign, reportedly created a plan to take possession of absentee ballots and assist voters with filling them out or fill them out fraudulently.

During a 2016 special election, authorities investigated fraud, particularly with mail-in ballots, after then-Councilman Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman lost his seat to incumbent Shahin Khalique and sued, alleging voter fraud. 

When asked about allegations of election fraud last week in Paterson, Murphy said, “I don’t have any specific insights” but that “it’s clearly something that we’re looking at.”

“My guess is with some fullness of time, we’ll have more to tell on that,” Murphy added.

Despite the challenges of the VBM only election, not just in Paterson but in other communities such as Belleville and Montclair, Murphy recently signed an executive order establishing a hybrid primary election for July 7, with a vote-by-mail ballot sent to every registered Democrat and Republican and a vote-by-mail application mailed to unaffiliated voters. Additionally, the order requires at least one polling location in each municipality.

According to Murphy, the state has no choice but to shift to a vote-by-mail election due to the pandemic. “We cannot responsibly plan for an in-person election two months away as a health matter,” he said.

Offering his pledge to exercise efforts to insure integrity in the election process Murphy said that “Every vote counts. We’ve seen election after election, including some cases for the President of the United States of America where single votes tipped the election one way or another. That is the exercise of one’s right to vote is the sacred element of democracy and we will do everything we can to uphold it.”

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