The Election Process: Can Elections Be Rigged?

Friday, 04 April 2014 17:47 Local Talk News Editor


An Interview with Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin

The election process is key to the success of a candidate. All candidates run with aspirations. Day in and day out, they work hard to gain the confidence and support of each individual voter.
On the local level, they go door to door, work tirelessly, lose sleep at night, and gather a group of people who support him/her. After these many problems, all deserve to be elected, but only one or a designated number of candidates can win. However, if someone works hard and deserve to be elected, but due to falsified voting registration or a compromised voting process lose the election, then it is not the democratic process we all dream about.
So I have decided to take the interview of Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin. He is the most qualified person to talk to about elections.

Dhiren Shah: What is the process of an election?

Chris Durkin: The election process is run by three different offices in Essex County; the County Clerk's office, the Superintendent of Elections, and the Board of Elections. All three offices have different functions. It's checks and balances so elections can be trusted, and not one office has all the power. Each office compliments each other, but no one controls the process solely. There are three forms of voting - vote by mail, voting at the machine, and provisional ballots. For instance, if we are talking about the process of the vote by mail ballot, the superintendent of elections maintains the voter registration file.

Anyone who wants to register to vote, or changes their address or name, goes to that office and files the correct paperwork. They maintain that file. When someone applies to vote by mail ballot, they send the application to the county clerk's office. Then we have access to view the registration file, but we cannot change anything in that system. We verify the information in the vote by mail application. We then approve or disapprove. If approved, we prepare the ballot and send the ballot out to home or school, wherever they want it send. In 2009, by the state legislature, the voter did not need an excuse to vote by mail. Anyone can vote by mail; it's a different form of voting. Voter votes by mail and the return address of that vote is the address of the Board of Elections. The Board of Elections counts the ballots. Three offices are involved in the process, so no one has too much power.

DS: Do they count the votes before the election or after the election?

CD: On the day of elections, they can start opening the ballots at 6 a.m. when the polls open. Think about that, all the votes are being tabulated throughout Election Day. Not only when polls close for the voting machines, but also for the vote by mail ballot. You cannot turn another ballot in after 8 p.m.

DS: Does the Board of Election vote by mail ballot get put in the computer after 6 a.m.

CD: We are not able to report the results until eight at night. You cannot have results if someone has a lead at eleven o'clock in the morning.

DS: Does the Board of Election have same kind of voting machine like the polling stations?

CD: No. At the polling booth, you push the button for the candidate of your choice. Mail ballots are the paper ballots. They run through the scanner. The computer registers and reads and gives the printout of results by candidate and by ballot questions, if there are any. When the dots are filled in by a voter, the computer reads it and gives a print out.

DS: Are the voting by mail ballots manually counted?

CD: Not manually, but in the recount, we have to count manually. At eight o'clock at night, we get updates on votes by mail. At the same time, we get the results from the voting machines. We add those two together. Three days later, we get the results of the provisional ballots. Provisional ballots for those people who did not appear in the poll booth. All three results come.

DS: When people allege some kind of fraudulent activity in election, who oversee the process?

CD: The Attorney General of New Jersey, Chief Election Law Enforcement Officer.

DS: In your opinion, with your wide experience, how can people make fraudulent activity? And how can you prevent it?

CD: The person could forge signatures. We have to be vigilant, and the poll worker looking at the person signing at the poll book or signing a vote by mail application that the signature matches.

DS: If poll worker has a doubt, then does the poll worker have the authority to ask for I.D.?

CD: Yes, they also have the authority to ask them to vote in a provisional ballot. You can't turn away someone from voting, but they can ask them to vote in a provisional ballot, which can be verified and checked at the county.

DS: I received numerous complaints over the years by candidates that fraudulent activities are going on in this booth and that booth. So the majority of the time, I told them to go to you, the county clerk, with their complaints. Why there are so many complaints, or it is just their assumptions?

CD: I think mostly it's assumptions. If they don't like the outcome, they complain. In the election process, you have to rely on people and the process. Except if there is a conspiracy of multiple people. You have to trust multiple people to do right thing. The poll book you sign to vote is a public document. The next day, you can come and say, let me see district seven in the South Ward all the signatures, and you can see whether or not they match up. It's a public document. This has been the system built up as checks and balances, as a public system, where you can check the process.

DS: How do they register the machines, and how are they computerized? Who oversees the machines, and who programs them?

CD: That's the Superintendent of Elections. They maintain the machines in a warehouse in Belleville. The machine is programmed through the ballot. Each machine is programmed individually, so there is no central network. They have to program each individual machine to that ballot. Within one ward, there might be different candidates, ballot questions, so there is programming for each specific machine. They are brought out to the districts five days before. There is an inspection two weeks before the election.
The candidates can inspect the machines. My office certifies the results. Eight o'clock on the election night, my staff goes out to the polling sites, to the town hall. We take the voting results and add them up. At the voting machine, there is a cartridge and paper results sheet. There are two forms of results. They bring them to city hall. Each municipality takes a copy, and we have a copy and the cartridge.

DS: Who programs the machines?

CD: The Superintendent of Elections is in charge of programming the machines. She can do in-house with the employees or hire an outside company to do it. The company that does it is Elections Graphics. They are in Bergen County.

DS: How reliable are the programmers?

CD: As reliable as you can get. They are professionals. That's what they do for a living. They not only do Essex County, they do it in Bergen County, Morris County, and Ocean County.

DS: If one candidate has a complaint about other candidate's campaigning, where do they complain?

CD: They can complain to me, if I can remedy it. If they are claiming that it is criminal in nature, they should approach the prosecutor's office, approach the attorney general's office. If it's technical, rules and regulations, I can do that.

DS: I have noticed that at election time, for every little issue the candidates are jumping to the court. Why is the system that way?

CD: They have to allow you to seek remedy, if you feel that you are being harmed. Some people use it for publicity purposes.

DS: You are in an elected position, but you still are in a neutral position.

CD: Impartial. I am acting to look at the process impartially. As a county clerk, I run with a team of candidates, and I endorse those candidates. It is the process called for in New Jersey.

To be continued next week. In our next edition, we will examine the process of getting on the ballot and people having the eligibility to vote.

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