UPDATE: Thirteen contested ballots will be decided in the courtroom of Judge Vincent LeBlon tomorrow at 1:30pm in the Middlesex County Courthouse, 56 Paterson Street in New Brunswick.
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Supporters of an elected school board packed a public hearing Tuesday evening to challenge the disqualification of more than 380 ballots cast at polling places across the city on election day.
Thirteen votes currently separate voters who endorsed a school board appointed by the mayor from those who want to give voters the power to elect the school board.
The four-member Middlesex County Board of Elections argued with attorneys, the public, and each other to decide which paper provisional ballots ought to be counted towards the controversial ballot question in New Brunswick.
Several city residents made sworn statements that they had attempted to register to vote in time for this election, and they will have their cases heard by a Superior Court Judge because the board was evenly split in a 2-2 vote.
Republicans Don Katz and Sylvia Engel voted to allow them to be counted, while Democrats Daniel Frankel and Jason Hawrylak opposed counting the ballots.
“Candidly, I expect this is going to be heard by a judge either way,” said Frankel before casting his vote to reject the ballots of four city residents who had waited hours to testify in support of their voting rights.
But not all voters who turned out to the hearing were able to testify because it took so long to get through the proceeding, which lasted nearly six hours.
Frankel declared that the Perth Amboy cases were heard first because there were less challenges filed in those races.
So most of the New Brunswick residents who showed up were forced to wait outside in the cold, while the Bay City’s ballots were counted, by order of two officers from the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Department.
After New Brunswick’s citizens were let in, Frankel began that portion of the hearing by shouting at the publisher of this newspaper, who was attempting to record a video of the meeting.
“This is against the law?!?!” he yelled, turning to his staff.
As our publisher looked to attorneys for advice, Frankel’s fellow commissioner Don Katz began to speak to the issue: “This is a quasi-judicial hearing…”
Quickly, Frankel interrupted Katz, talking over him and raising his voice to the author of this article.
“Camera! Recording… Out! Or put it away please,” Frankel said, while gesticulating and pointing at the cellphone.
“This meeting is not to be recorded,” he later told the entire room, mostly composed of supporters of an elected school board, and spoke the most of any board member during the hearing.
Engel, the board’s official chair, remained silent during the discussion of video recording, and for most of the hearing.
Yolonda Baker, a city resident and parent who spearheaded the campaign for the elected school board, reprimanded Frankel early on during the hearing after she was recognized to speak.
“You’re being disrespectful… I understand that your staff has done a lot of work for this election, but so have a lot of the people here,” she said.
“I don’t think you’re being disrespectful,” Frankel told Baker, not quite understanding what she had said.
“No. I said that YOU are being disrespectful,” Baker replied.
“Thank you for your criticism,” Frankel responded.
Three attorneys were the only people in the room in support the current mayor-appointed school board system: Democratic Party Chairman TK Shamy, former NBPD Director Joe Catanese, and former appointed school board member Ben Bucca.
Bucca enjoyed mixed results in his attempts to disqualify 27 votes and challenge the county’s proposed rejection of another 6 on behalf of the “Committee to Keep Politics Out of Our Schools,” a political organization funded almost entirely by the city’s 22-year-incumbent Mayor James Cahill.
By contrast, the “New Brunswick for Elected School Board” team did not attempt to disqualify any ballots, and filed challenges to the rejection of 388 ballots. They also fundraised about 100 times less than the mayor’s campaign.
The board evaluated the challenged rejections one-by-one during the lengthy hearing, despite Frankel’s initial efforts to process them in large batches.
Hundreds of those ballots were rejected by the board, mostly for not being registered to vote in Middlesex County.
In some cases, ballots were partially accepted: votes for the offices of President and US Senate, and the two state ballot questions were counted, while votes in all local races were ignored, including the elected school board ballot question.
In other cases, ballots were thrown out, but the information on them was used to register voters to cast ballots in future elections.
According to an article in the Daily Targum, some 600 provisional ballots are set to be counted because voters were found to be properly registered in Middlesex County when the board’s staff researched the ballots initially.
But, in nine of the cases where the county sought to reject the voter’s ballot, the elected school board supporters were able to provide copies of the voter’s fully-completed registration form dated before the state’s Oct. 16 registration deadline.
Still, another 50-60 ballots inititally rejected by the county are in limbo, after advocates for an elected school board said that they found the voters in a simple search of the county’s registered voters.
Chief Clerk Linda Pino admitted that some of the rejected ballots should have instead been marked for approval due to clerical errors. Her office is now in the process of researching them for a second time in as many weeks.
But the provisional ballots will not be counted for some time, according to the board’s administrator James Vokral. He said their office is still waiting to recieve ballots from voters who cast ballots from other counties because of Hurricane Sandy
Editors’ Note: The author of this article was very involved in the campaign to ensure all New Brunswick residents ballots were counted, and campaigned in support of holding school board elections.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.