The Eye of a VBM Storm


It was Wednesday, May 6th in Essex County, six days before the municipal elections in Belleville, Irvington, Montclair, Nutley and Orange. In addition, School Board elections in Irvington and Newark. And, people wanted to vote.  

The phones seemingly rang all at once at the Clerk’s Office. A small group of election officials answering the calls weren’t quite able to keep up and the ringing was constant, non-stop. Email requests and queries by the hundreds were stacking up throughout the day and night. 

The Governor’s Executive Order mandated the May 12th Non-Partisan and School Board Elections to be an all-vote-by-mail (VBM) election in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which also made the County Clerk’s Office a polling place for Election Day. 

Six municipalities were engaged in these elections with 290,000 registered voters all of whom had been mailed ballots 21 days before Election Day. 

Two weeks before May 12, voters were alerting the office that their mail in ballots had not arrived and they were requesting second ballots.

By the hundreds, second ballots were prepared and mailed priority mail postage. But the calls and emails kept piling up.

“Where’s my ballot? “ said a caller. “I requested my second ballot last week,” said another as examples of the frenetic pace of communications.  We were hearing that priority mail is being delivered in 8 days. And by then the County Clerk’s Office was receiving requests for third ballots. 

Adding more to the drama, campaign teams have learned to contact voters through all forms of technological interaction.

The Board of Elections set up their ballot acceptance area at the Essex County College Gymnasium where, over a 16-day period, they would receive and inspect more than 42,000 returned ballots while all the while maintaining social distance and worker protection. A video feed was created for challengers to watch the process. 

The 2012 Hurricane Sandy election was supposed to be the ultimate test where Mother Nature competed mightily with the voters’ thirst for democracy but a global pandemic eight years later was, no doubt, a rival to that infamous hurricane.

And, some voters never actually received their ballots, while many others discarded theirs along with other mail that they were reluctant to even touch for fear of the virus lingering on surfaces. Concerns were real.

In the ensuing six days leading up to Election Day, more than 700 ballots were delivered directly to voters by the County Clerk’s Office including 175 ballots that I, personally, had the honor of hand delivering.

In delivering ballots to voters, our office had some memorable experiences: a face-to-face encounter with a pit bull and a ballot delivery to the owner of a tavern where the owner wanted to cast his vote, at the bar, for a contested ward race. Ballots were also delivered to three Covid-19 positive voters.

The phone calls and emails were never ending and the delivery of ballots by hand were made to housing complexes, multi-family and single-family homes. The experiences of delivering ballots to voters who want their voices heard were, for us, the ultimate sense of fulfillment. 

Election Day saw 428 voters in person come directly to the County Clerk’s Office to request ballots and vote. The hallway was packed with voters throughout the 14-hour day all the while with social distancing protocols firmly in place.

By 8:30pm on May 12, unofficial results were posted after three weeks of intense hand-to-hand democracy. My thanks to a small and dedicated group of election workers who accomplished some extraordinary things.  Democracy works.

Chris Durkin is the Essex County Clerk.

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