BY KATE DELANY
Efforts to ramp up Vote by Mail (VBM) seem, on the surface, to be a win for democracy. More people voting–what’s not to like? Except it’s not that simple. In Camden County, the county with the highest percentage of mail in ballots in the state, VBM is broken. Rather than fostering real engagement, it reinforces the status quo. Rather than encouraging conversations necessary for democracy, it silences them before they can even start. Can VBM be fixed in Camden County? Yes, but not without a hard look at the ways in which it’s flawed and not without a commitment to the systemic change necessary to repair it.
Why Camden County is a Special Case
South Jersey in general and Camden County in particular is homebase for George Norcross’s political machine. Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than three to one. Democrats routinely secure overwhelming electoral victories over Republicans. Real contests in Camden County are not the general elections of D versus R but the primary of machine Dems versus challengers. In Camden County, where one party dominates, the competitive elections are intra-party primaries.
How Progressives are Disadvantaged by VBM
Though VBM may be advantageous in securing Democratic victories in areas with competitive inter-party contests, in Camden County, VBM disadvantages progressives in four main ways. VBM currently shortchanges challengers via:
- the ballot line & incumbent “name recognition” advantage
- a drastically shortened campaign season which makes it difficult for challengers to reach voters and talk about platforms and issues.
- ballot manipulation such as phantom candidates and label games which require time to address with voters.
- troubling conflicts of interest in the Board of Elections.
The Power of the Line in Primary Elections
In general elections, voters decide between parties, between D and R. In the primary, voters are making a more nuanced decision, deciding the direction of their party. Meaningful primaries require high information voters.
Camden County voters currently decide the future of their party by picking a line, or column. Machine backed incumbents appear in Column 1. Challengers occupy a more far flung column. Voters who may be low information in terms of the issues within their party will vote down the establishment Column 1 line for the names they recognize. According to academic research, candidates listed first win office between four and five percentage points more often. The line gives machine backed incumbents a measurable head start in the race over progressive challengers.
The Trouble with a Shortened Campaign Season
VBM condenses the primary season. For the June 4, 2019 primary, VBM ballots were sent out on April 20th, just twenty days after candidates filed petitions to run for office. Mail in ballots are sent and returned before the candidates have even begun to campaign in earnest.
The Norcross machine encourages people to “hurry up and vote” via VBM. On April 27, 2019, voters received a letter from Cory Booker telling them, “don’t wait! Cast your vote by mail ballot today and vote for the entire Camden County Column 1 Team!” Hasty voting is harmful to progressives and harmful to democracy, as voters should be encouraged to get informed, rather than just simply vote quickly.
Ballot Manipulation Part 1: Phantom Candidates
In addition to the head-start of the line and the drastically condensed primary season prompted by VBM, the ballot is manipulated in ways designed to disadvantage challengers. Challengers need an opportunity to explain these underhanded tactics to voters. This includes identifying phantom candidates.
The Norcross machine recruits phantom candidates to act like spoilers or spacers in elections. These phantom candidates push legitimate challenger candidates further over on the ballot, into Ballot Siberia. They cause intentional voter confusion. They work to split any potential “protest vote” against the establishment.
Ballot Manipulation Part 2: Label Games
The deceptive strategy of running phantom candidates requires time for challengers to have conversations with voters. Likewise, challengers need time to talk with voters about the intentionally confusing label games that the machine employs.
On the June 2019 Primary ballot, the phantom candidates of Column 2 were labeled “Progressive Democrats for Change.” The phantom candidates of Column 3 were labeled “Real Progressive Democrats for Camden County.” In their mailers, Column 1 machine candidates proclaimed themselves the “Camden County Progressive Team.” They bought the website camdencountyprogressivedems.com to promote their online Fraud Feed, via which they attacked challengers. The only team to relinquish the progressive label was the SJ Progressive Dems, who ran under the slogan “Democrats of Camden County.”
Conflicts of Interest Galore!
The average Camden County voter is likely unaware of the highly political nature of the Board of Elections, an office that is not voted on by the public but appointed by the County Chair. Current Board of Elections commissioners have close ties to the Norcross machine. The Board is chaired by Donna Robinson Taylor of RP Consulting which raises funds for General Majority, George Norcross’s PAC. Board of Elections commissioner Novella Hinson was moved to the Board of Elections after being at the center of an election controversy in Camden that provoked public ire and demands that she leave the city. Theodore Hinson, Novella Hinson’s late husband, a Norcross loyalist, previously served on the Board.
Camden County Clerk and machine politician Joe Ripa was on the June 2019 Primary ballot and also drafted the June 2019 Primary ballot. The instructions to vote for one clerk candidate appeared beside his name in Column 1. He placed both of his two competitors for office over in Column 4, one below the other. Voters who wished to support the SJ Progressive Dems in Column 4 and voted straight down the line at the polling place would not be able to make the mistake of voting for both of the clerk candidates in this one column. The voting machine would toggle. Those voting down the line on paper, however, inadvertently voted for two clerk candidates so their vote did not count.
George Norcross himself made it plain how much he manipulates Election Boards in the 2001 Palmyra Tapes. Those recordings of backroom political machine operations include George Norcross agreeing to give Palmyra Mayor John Gural a patronage job in the Board of Elections. This Board of Election appointment is offered as payment for Gural firing one of Norcross’s enemies.
So What Can Be Done?
To be a real success, VBM needs to be more than just a hasty vote. Likewise, VBM needs to be more than ballot chasing, with the County Clerk and other machine politicians going to retirement homes or other places with a captive audience to get ballots completed. To fix VBM, conflicts of interest need to be addressed. Objectivity on the Board of Elections is essential. The clear ties to the unelected party boss ought to be alarming to voters. Voters also need to demand a fair ballot–one free of phantom candidates and label games, and one structured in a more democratic design than the line.
Primary elections matter. While they may be unwanted for obvious reasons by incumbents, they have the power to prompt conversations about a party’s future. Those conversations are worth the time to engage in. Camden County voters: think, research, question. Our local democracy requires you to do more than “hurry up and vote.”
Kate Delany is chair of the Collingswood Democrats