In Paterson, a Lesson in how not to Hold a City Election

Vote-by-mail apparently works quite well in some places, such as Oregon, where the state has been conducting presidential elections entirely by mail since 2000.

Vote-by-mail in Paterson, NJ, however, is another kettle of fish entirely. As the mass chaos, confusion and possible malfeasance surrounding the Silk City’s recent “mail only” ward elections shows all too clearly – voting by mail requires preparation, infrastructure, training and security. It is not something that should be attempted helter-skelter on the fly, especially at a time of a deadly pandemic when the postal service is overwhelmed as it is.

Yet none of those mitigating factors apparently weighed on the mind of Gov. Phil Murphy when he ordered the state’s third-largest city back in March to conduct its traditional May municipal elections totally by mail.

The results, if you want to call them that, speak for themselves. As Joe Malinconico of Paterson Press reported, the Passaic County Board of Elections last Friday released a report that showed about 3,200 of the 16,747 mail-in votes submitted in the Paterson election were rejected and not counted in the results.

County officials have said that more than 800 of those votes came under scrutiny for alleged improper bundling of mail-in ballots. But officials have not yet provided a detailed breakdown on why all 3,200 were disqualified.

Now the Rev. Kenneth Clayton, a city activist and leader of Paterson’s NAACP, has called for Murphy to “invalidate the election.”

“These kinds of acts make people not want to vote anymore,” Clayton told NBCNewYork.com. “They feel disenfranchised, disconnected that their votes don’t count, and that is not fair to people.”

If the current vote count stands, 3rd Ward Councilman William McKoy, a long-time stalwart on the council and close ally of Mayor Andre Sayegh, would be ousted. McKoy and two other candidates who are now behind are seeking recounts, including Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman, who was seeking to reclaim in his 2nd Ward.

If the governor or anyone on his staff had bothered to take a closer look at Paterson’s recent voting history before declaring a total “mail-in’ balloting system for the beleaguered city, they would have found that voting irregularities have been common for at least the past decade, and that they often have concerned shenanigans involving mail-in or absentee balloting.

This is particularly true of the 2nd Ward, where the Election Day outcome is hardly ever the final outcome, and has been over the last few cycles always involved a recount or at least the suggestion of voter fraud.  Indeed, four years ago, the current 2nd Ward incumbent, Shaheen Khalique and Akhtaruzzaman engaged in a bitter, lengthy court battle before Khalique was declared the winner.

While anyone can understand that Murphy had few good options, given the social distancing strictures of the Covid 19 pandemic, anyone with a cursory knowledge of Paterson’s recent voting record could have predicted this was going to be the unmitigated disaster that it has become.

Holding a new city election, I suspect, is not as easy, legally, or logistically, as some might suggest. At the very least, though, the Murphy administration, the attorney general’s office and the secretary of state need to be studying what went wrong in Paterson, and use it as a dry run — an object lesson of sorts for the coming statewide Primary, as well as the General Election in November.

Of course, none of that will do much to satisfy the people of Paterson, who once again find themselves at the mercy of what seems a broken electoral system.

Bruce Lowry, a long-time Opinion journalist and columnist, has written about Paterson and Passaic County for nearly 15 years.

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