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PERTH AMBOY, NJ—Eleven provisional ballots, which could contain legitimate votes, were found “unopened” almost three weeks after Election Day and three days after the official results were certified.
Middlesex County election officials also confirmed they counted at least seven votes cast on mail-in ballots that had been reported stolen, and it is not possible to remove these suspect votes from the final results.
Because election officials were allowed to begin counting ballots well before Election Day, thanks to a change in state law, the suspect ballots were approved and anonymized before the victimized voters came forward.
All of the ballots have one thing in common: they came from Perth Amboy, where two of the city’s hotly-contested local races are destined for a runoff election, and recounts have been requested in multiple close contests.
It all comes during a chaotic year amid the state’s first general election held under new, drastic changes made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The close contests, the pandemic, and the scandalous stories of stolen ballots have complicated the runoff races, set for December 15.
Governor Phil Murphy’s decision to delay the runoff election by one week makes for an even tighter timeline, leaving only a short window to count the next round of votes, resolve any disputes, and swear in the next Mayor on January 1.
While an attempt to recall Mayor Wilda Diaz in 2019 failed, her opponents succeeded in changing the city’s form of government to require runoff elections if no candidate gets majority support in the November election.
Under the new system, a runoff election is held between the top two vote-getters if no candidate reaches 50% in the first contest.
Certified results for the November 3 race show Diaz in first place, with only 33% of the vote. Not far behind is one of her many challengers, Councilman Helmin Caba, with 30%.
Who wins the run-off race could depend on who the supporters of Joseph Vas Jr. decide to back. Vas, the son of the notorious Mayor who Diaz ousted in 2008, secured just over 24% of the 14,898 votes counted so far.
A race for two open Council seats will also boil down to a four-way runoff battle between the teams allied with Diaz and Caba.
Originally slated for December 8, Governor Murphy decided to delay the runoff to allow additional time to prepare ballots, assuming it would take until November 20 to certify the results due to his mandates that led to overwhelming numbers of ballots being cast on paper.
While Murphy’s law allowed counties to start opening ballots ten days prior to Election Day, two New Jersey counties were still unable to meet the November 20 deadline to certify, causing Murphy to grant them an extension by executive order.
But now that additional uncounted ballots have been found in Middlesex County, it is possible the results for Perth Amboy could be “updated,” potentially delaying any recounts or legal challenges, and messing up the timing for the runoff elections.
Diaz is running for a fourth term as the city’s top official, while her husband battles a case of COVID-19 and one of her running mates battles the perception that he is involved in a ballot stealing scheme.
Video obtained by New Brunswick Today shows Junior Iglesias, a Board of Education member running for City Council, watching another Diaz ally rifle through someone’s mailbox on September 24, the day that mail-in ballots arrived for the November 3 election.
It’s one of at least three homes in the city that allegedly had mail-in ballots stolen before the voters received them. New Brunswick Today has obtained a police report that discusses two of the cases involving other households.
In October, Maria Almanzar Fernandez told local police that her family’s ballots were stolen while her family was out of the country.
Another voter, Juan Bautista Mojica, stated that he learned of someone attempting to vote on his ballot when he received one of the newly-mandated “cure” letters being sent to voters when their ballot is going to be rejected for a signature that doesn’t match the ones officials have on file.
Mojica told Perth Amboy Police Department that the same thing happened with his daughter’s ballot, and that his grandson’s had been allegedly received by the Board of Elections even though his grandson never saw it.
It’s far from the the first time mail-in ballots were abused by political candidates and their operatives.
A “do-over” election was ordered for a close City Council contest in 2014, after more than a dozen votes were called into question. The scandal also led to the resignation of Leslie Dominguez Rodriguez, a Diaz nemesis, as Chairwoman of the Perth Amboy Democratic Organization.
Despite the expansion of mail-in voting this year, cases of publicized voter fraud remain few and far between in the Garden State.
In Paterson, a candidate was among four people charged with voter fraud in the May 12 local election, only to prevail in a second election for the position held in November, pending the results of a recount.
New Jersey officials have only announced one case of voter fraud related to the general election, where a Hunterdon County man faces an accusation of voting someone else’s ballot.
“I’m not aware of others,” said Governor Phil Murphy on November 10, when asked if he was aware of voter fraud allegations in Middlesex County.
“We are not aware of any other instances or investigations into voter fraud,” confirmed Murphy’s Chief Counsel Parimal Garg.
The closest race in Perth Amboy, a Board of Education contest, won’t come down to a runoff unless it ends in a tie.
But the winner of a three-year term on the city’s school board could hinge on the outcome of these complex and unprecedented irregularities, including the eleven ballots that were discovered on November 23.
In the official results, Marisol Gonzalez won a seat on the school board with 4,122 votes, but Lisett Lebron trailed her by ten votes. In the twelve-way race, only the top three will win seats on the board.
It seemed like the seven “suspect” votes that were counted would not be enough to make a difference in the final margin of that race.
But now the Board of Elections has scheduled an emergency 9am meeting on November 25 to discuss another eleven votes on paper ballots that were “found… unopened” in a tray two days earlier.
While the ballots were discovered at the Middlesex County College building that the Board of Elections has taken over, the emergency meeting will be held at the board’s headquarters in East Brunswick.
“If the Commissioners vote to consider the ballots, the Commissioners will allow a review and challenge of said ballots from those present,” reads a notice discreetly distributed to some interested parties by the Board of Elections.
“After a review of any challenges, the Commissioners will move, if previously accepted, to hand count the (11) provisional ballots and update the election results for Perth Amboy.”
Elections Administrator Thomas Lynch did not immediately answer questions about the latest developments in the saga, but only confirmed the emergency meeting’s agenda would include “Perth Amboy provisional ballots.”
It’s no surprise that such a mistake could happen with over 382,000 ballots to count, almost all of them on paper. But it is curious that the mistake would be confined to Perth Amboy, which was already receiving special attention after the first five stolen ballots were reported.
Lynch referred that matter to law enforcement in a letter that stated the Board of Elections “will be segmenting Perth Amboy ballots from the normal flow of processing until we have a better understanding of the scope of this issue,” according to the New Jersey Globe.
Lynch also ensured that the Board of Elections’ permanent staff would be assigned all Perth Amboy ballots, but it’s not clear how long his directive was in place and whether or not it applied to provisional ballots.
In some cases, the suspect votes were rejected due to signatures, and caught before they were counted.
At least two of the victimized voters showed up at one of the city’s polling places on Election Day and cast paper provisional ballots.
Provisional ballots are counted based on the same standards as mail-in ballots, and when there is a dispute about whether or not to count one, it is up to the four-member Board of Elections to rule.
But faced with the question of whether to count provisional ballots cast by the alleged victims whose mail-in ballots were stolen and cast illegally, the Board of Elections instead voted to refer the matter to Superior Court.
“Although we may have jurisdiction to make this decision, I would like the Judge to make this decision,” said Democrat Dan Frankel, the longest-serving member of the board and the Business Administrator of Sayreville.
“We already have two votes that have been counted illegally, we understand that.”
A Superior Court Judge ultimately ruled that the provisional ballots should be counted, so those voters will each have two votes cast in their name this year: their provisional vote and a potentially fraudulent mail-in vote.
At the subsequent Board of Elections’ public meeting on November 19, this reporter questioned the officials about their plans for certifying the election results, and the expanding scandal in Perth Amboy.
“To our knowledge, there were nine potentially fraudulent [votes] referred to the appropriate law enforcement that we caught,” said Don Katz, a Board of Elections member.
Two of the allegedly stolen ballots were rejected by the Board of Elections as the signatures did not match, triggering a mailing to the voters, who were surprised to learn someone had submitted their ballot for them.
“Two of the nine we were able to catch. The other seven suspect ballots were not able to be caught,” said Katz.
The board said they would meet the following day at 4pm for a public meeting to certify the results of the election.
But that meeting never happened, and it became unclear whether the counting would be done in time for the state’s midnight deadline to certify the results.
Even with the 10-day head start authorized by Governor Murphy and the legislature, the election was not certified until shortly before 10pm on November 20, leaving just two hours to spare.
Democratic Commissioners were in such a hurry to get it over with, they appeared to sign the certification paperwork while ballots were still being counted.
At one point, tensions ran hot between Commissioner Frankel and this reporter, with Frankel leaving the room after learning his actions were being recorded.
The two Republican Commissioners waited until the last vote–or at least what everyone thought was the last vote–was counted.
But it’s another video that is shaking up the Perth Amboy’s elections.
Video obtained by New Brunswick Today purports to show ballot thefts taking place on September 24, with City Council candidate Junior Iglesias on the scene as a woman identified as Marilou Villacis rifles through a mailbox on State Street, allegedly to remove ballots.
The video shows Villacis, a Diaz ally and Council candidate in 2018, walking to her car after going through the mailbox, before returning to the rear of the home.
Villacis did not respond to messages from this reporter.
The other two people shown in the video are current Council candidate and Board of Education Vice President Junior Iglesias and Diaz aide Jeannette Rios. Both admitted to having seen the video and confirming it was them, but were unable to answer questions about what was happening there.
“There’s obviously more than one version to the story,” said Junior Iglesias, insisting on providing a written statement when we asked what the video showed.
“This is a shameful political character assassination attempt from the Caba’s Campaign designed to shift attention from their embarrassing political loss,” read the statement Iglesias provided hours later, which recounted his own accomplishments and did not address the video directly.
“In the November 3rd general election, I received 4516 votes; the top vote getter for the Perth Amboy City council race, however they don’t want voters to know that,” wrote Iglesias.
Meanwhile, Jeannette Rios seemed to hang up the phone on this reporter when we first called, but she eventually called back.
“There was nothing illegal there,” said Rios, without saying what was happening there and insisting on providing a written statement.
Rios’ statement also blamed Caba for the perceived attack.
“It is disgraceful to witness that as black, indigenous, and communities of color across the country are being attacked with baseless accusations of voter fraud, Helmin Caba and his inner circle are resorting to these same appalling tactics. They should have been better than this,” wrote Rios.
“This amateur attempt to mischaracterize and defame legitimate voter engagement without any attempt to seek the facts disqualifies Mr. Caba from seeking office.”
But the Diaz team’s response to eyebrow-raising video appears to have also led Irving Lozada, Perth Amboy’s head of code enforcement, to conduct an awkward on-camera interview inside the home where Iglesias, Villacis, and Rios are shown visiting.
While the video is meant to be exonerating, it appears to have stirred further concerns.
When New Brunswick Today spoke to Diaz on November 21, she foretold the Lozada video and defended her team’s activities at the State Street house as “canvassing.”
“We’re gonna get to the bottom of this. At the end of the day the truth will come out.”
“You’re going to hear directly from the people that live there,” Diaz said, referring to the State Street home at the center of the controversy.
While Lozada spoke on camera to two residents the following day, voter records show at least a dozen registered voters at that address, in at least three different units.
One of those residents, Melvin Ramirez, says he reported the theft of his ballot to police.
“my ballot was taken from my house on the second floor and it was suppose to be returned when it wasn’t. That is why I made the report,” Ramirez wrote as a comment on Lozada’s Facebook video.
Ramirez wrote that he voted on a provisional ballot, saying “in fact I got a call from the [police department] on November 3 that my ballot was voided that I had to do it in person.”
In addition to the State Street home from the controversial videos circulating around Perth Amboy on social media, at least two additional households reported to local police that multiple ballots were stolen.
One of those properties is owned by Marilou Villacis.
The Middlesex County Board of Elections says they have referred the matter county and state law enforcement for a criminal investigation, something law enforcement is unlikely to confirm until they have filed charges or need the public’s help.
“Thanks for your query. We neither confirm nor deny investigations,” wrote Steven Barnes of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office.
“The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office cannot confirm or deny the existence of an investigation,” wrote Andrea Boulton, the public information officer for that agency.
Perth Amboy Police Chief Roman McKeon did not respond to multiple phone messages and emailed questions.
UPDATE: The Board of Elections voted to approve all eleven provisional ballots found and amend their certification of the election results.
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.