New Local Election Ordered in N.J. After Mail-In Voter Fraud Charges



Aug. 19, 2020

Nearly 20 percent of the mail-in ballots in a municipal election in Paterson were thrown out because of irregularities. Credit...


In the days before New Jersey’s third-largest city held municipal elections in May entirely by mail, postal workers became suspicious when they found hundreds of ballots bundled together.

The discovery triggered an investigation that led to charges of voter fraud against two local elected leaders and resulted in nearly 20 percent of the ballots being rejected. It also prompted President Trump to cite the case as an example of how mail-in voting can corrupt elections, though election experts staunchly disagree.

On Wednesday, a New Jersey judge ruled that the election in Paterson, N.J., had been irreversibly tainted and ordered a new vote to be held in November to settle the race for the City Council seat.

The superior court judge, Ernest M. Caposela, wrote that the election “was not the fair, free and full expression of the intent of the voters.”

His decision came one day after the Trump campaign sued New Jersey over its recent decision to conduct the November election almost entirely by mail to keep people safe from the coronavirus.

The lawsuit claims that the move by Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, was unconstitutional, arguing that the power to change election rules lies with state lawmakers, not the governor.

Mr. Trump’s campaign cited the Paterson corruption case as a reason not to expand voting by mail. “By ordering universal vote-by-mail, he has created a recipe for disaster,” the suit said.

With more voters than ever eligible to vote by mail because of the outbreak, Mr. Trump has repeatedly warned, without any evidence, that mail-in ballots would lead to widespread fraud and would call into question the results of the November election.

But some election experts said it was somewhat misleading to use the Paterson scandal as a cudgel to discredit mail-in voting, noting that election fraud is extremely rare and, as the case in New Jersey shows, is usually easy to detect.

Once votes were tallied after the May 12 special election in Paterson, William McKoy, a 20-year incumbent city councilman, had lost by 240 votes. But after he filed a lawsuit in June accusing Alex Mendez, the person who defeated him, of fraud, Judge Caposela ruled that no one would be allowed to take office until the case was resolved.

“There were so many problems that came up that we were never going to be able to come to a realistic answer of who actually won,” said Scott Salmon, a lawyer representing Mr. McKoy.

The state attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal, started an investigation and in June charged four men, including Mr. Mendez and another councilman, with the unauthorized possession of ballots. The two elected officials were accused of delivering mail-in ballots that were not theirs and of submitting voter registration applications for people who were not eligible to vote.

All four men have denied any wrongdoing.

As the investigation unfolded, some conservative groups seized on the more than 3,000 ballots that were thrown out to make the case that mail-in voting makes it too easy to manipulate elections by allowing ineligible voters, including the dead, to vote.

“The defendants in the ballot fraud case are not criminal masterminds,” a writer at Judicial Watch, a conservative organization that focuses on government misconduct, wrote on the group’s website. “Ballot fraud is easy.”

But officials in New Jersey argue that what happened in Paterson was being oversimplified and that the majority of ballots were rejected because they had been filled out incorrectly and not because they had been submitted illegally.

About 1,200 votes were disqualified because voters’ signatures did not match those on file, according to the Passaic County Board of Elections.

In New Jersey, voters can designate someone to submit ballots on their behalf, but no one is allowed to drop off more than three during an election. As a result, an additional 1,000 votes were disqualified because a section on the ballot to list the name of the person sending them in had been left blank.

Only three ballots were thrown out because they had been cast in the names of people who were dead, and another was rejected because of suspicions that someone might have attempted to vote twice.

Voting experts say seizing on a relatively small case involving a handful of people to tar efforts to make voting easier has become a tactic to disenfranchise voters.

“If these claims are true and these people are saying they’ve seen voter fraud, they need to produce what that looks like,” said Amber McReynolds, the chief executive of the National Vote at Home Institute and Coalition, a nonpartisan group focused on expanding access to the ballot. “Every time I’ve ever asked for that, nobody has ever given it to me.”

Mr. Murphy has also dismissed criticisms that the Paterson scandal signals larger issues with mail-in voting, arguing that the rejected ballots show that even a quickly rolled-out vote-by-mail election can weed out ineligible votes.

On Wednesday, he fired back on Twitter against the Trump campaign’s lawsuit, arguing that it was a “brazen attempt to sow fear and confusion, and to delegitimize our elections,” adding in another post that “we will defend our rights vigorously and we will not back down. Bring it on.’’

Paterson has had elections controversies in the past. Concerns around potential voter fraud arose in 2018, after there was a surge in the number of mail-in ballots, though no evidence was found. Eight years prior, a Paterson councilman and his wife were charged with conspiring to collect and submit fraudulent ballots during a 2010 local election.

Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law, said the problems in Paterson illustrate the challenges of mass rollouts of mail-in voting and the need for anti-fraud mechanisms like ballot tracking, which allows voters to follow their ballots through the postal system.

But, he added, the case also shows large-scale voting fraud would be difficult to successfully carry out.

“When you start tampering with absentee ballots, if you were doing it on a large enough scale to try and influence an election, it’s going to typically involve a large number of moving parts,” Mr. Hasen said. “It’s hard to keep conspiracies quiet and people will notice when they go to vote.”

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