PATERSON, NJ - Gov. Phil Murphy’s order for all elections scheduled for May 12 to be conducted solely through vote-by-mail ballots has drawn a mixed reaction from candidates seeking city council seats in Paterson.

As New Jersey continues to battle against the spread of coronavirus, Murphy signed an executive order on March 20 changing how voters will participate in the election to ensure that the public can “safely exercise their right to vote and be engaged in our democracy.”

“As the coronavirus outbreak continues to unfold, we must take aggressive and swift action to help mitigate further spread and flatten the curve. My top priority is to keep New Jerseyans healthy and safe during this pandemic,” the governor said in a press release.

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Secretary of State Tahesha Way said Murphy’s order – which also includes postponing 14 special and school board elections scheduled for various dates in March and April until May –  will “protect our voters, election workers and election security."

“As we continue to face this public health crisis, our team at the Division of Elections is working every day with our local, county, state and federal partners to protect New Jersey voters and our democracy,” Way said.

In the wake of Murphy’s announcement, some of the 18 candidates seeking election have expressed support for the move, while others said they have concerns, given what has happened during previous elections.

Indeed, there is some pattern of shenanigans when it comes to Paterson’s history with voters casting their ballot 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. 

Sharrieff Bugg, who is running for a 3-year seat in the Third Ward, said, "In light of the current situation as a community we all have to do our part to move forward. It's my desire to continue the tradition of my ancestors to walk into the voting booth and push the button on my behalf.”

“Unfortunately, this cannot be done. It's my hope the Passaic County Board of Election put measures in place to ensure this election is not stolen from the people,” he said.

Alex Mendez, a candidate in the Third Ward, said he supports Murphy’s decision “because the safety of our citizens is our number one priority.”

“This is a perfect example of why the vote-by-mail option was created and everyone should take full advantage of it,” Mendez also said.

Robyn Spencer, also seeking a seat in the Third Ward, said she believed the change “is unfair and a bit biased.”

Mayor Andre Sayegh “should suggest that it be postponed as it doesn’t allow for the new constituents to market as much due to the quarantine,” she said. “However, because he is supporting Bill McKoy he doesn't care and knows this will support his candidate as people will vote off of name recognition,” she claimed. 

“Also, it's unfortunate that we leave it up to people placing it in the mail. That in itself is a challenge; not to mention the mail fraud and interception of mail, which we have experienced when submitting checks for taxes via the mail. So, I think this is a poor decision for many reasons and just demonstrates the lack of concern for the community to have an opportunity to get better representation,” Spencer said.

Fourth ward candidate Eddy Olivares said, “The entire world is in crisis, so I think it is appropriate to take measures such as that taken by our governor. This is the first time that our state will hold elections entirely by mail, as such the process will be chaotic and everyone should be on the alert to prevent voting fraud to the extent possible.”

A longtime critic of how vote by mail campaigns have been allegedly mismanaged locally in the past is activist Ernest Rucker, who, since Murphy’s order, has taken to Facebook to urge that additional protection be enacted to guarantee a fair, and legal, election.

“We must lobby the Governor to strengthen the penalties for anyone participating in the manipulating through fraudulent means the vote by mail process,” Rucker said Wedndesday. “We also need to request the Governor through the Attorney General’s office as well as the Superintendent of Elections to send a host of monitors to the City of Paterson to oversee this critical election.”

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