NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—While New Jersey is moving to increase access to voting in primary and general elections, local and county officials here are trying to limit voting opportunities for the upcoming April 20 school election.
Contradictions and falsehoods abound in the latest local debacle, with multiple conflicting versions of the official story from various government entities and officials, and many questions still unanswered about the move.
At some point in March, New Brunswick City Clerk Leslie Zeledon and Middlesex County Board of Elections Administrator Thomas Lynch tentatively agreed to eliminate nearly half of the voting locations normally in use for school board elections, cutting the total number of polling sites from fourteen down to eight.
The move, which would make it harder to vote for thousands of city residents, comes after Middlesex County failed to deliver on the number of voting locations Governor Phil Murphy had promised voters for the November 2020 election, and just as a school board race heats up in the Hub City.
Three seats on the Board of Education will be at stake in the upcoming contest, as well as voter approval of the school district’s $263 million budget. The city has held school elections every April since 2013, until the COVID-19 pandemic caused the Governor to order an unprecedented delay and a drastic overhaul to last year’s contest.
This year, mail-in ballots will not be automatically mailed to all active voters. Instead, only a fraction of Hub City voters are set to receive them for this election.
The proposed polling location list was kept secret until March 17, just over a month before Election Day.
Lynch claimed to have the support of the four-member Board of Elections, but an email obtained by New Brunswick Today shows that at least one Commissioner vehemently opposes the move.
“The Board of Elections Commissioners support our staff, the New Brunswick Municipal Clerk, and New Brunswick School Board in the selection of these polling locations,” Lynch told New Brunswick Today after going silent for five days.
But after complaints started rolling in to the email inboxes of the Commissioners, one of the Republican members of the Election Board expressed opposition to the cutbacks.
Commissioner Don Katz said in a March 22 email to Lynch and other colleagues at the Board of Elections that he was never asked to approve the changes, and that he wants to maintain all fourteen polling places.
“I assumed the New Brunswick polling locations were the same ones used, and approved by the commissioners, in prior years, without changes, I did not question why we were not asked to approve these polling locations again,” wrote Katz, adding that it has been the board’s “consistent policy… [not] to eliminate any polling places normally used for voting, so as not to confuse or inconvenience the voters.”
“We have not approved reducing the number of polling places for the New Brunswick School Board Election and, to the best of my knowledge, none of the Governor’s executive orders specifically authorize or require such a reduction in the number of polling locations. Please see that this is corrected immediately,” Katz wrote.
The controversy is likely to come to a head during the Election Board’s April 1 meeting at Middlesex County College, where opponents of the reduction are expected to speak directly to the Board.
Lynch’s and Zeledon’s proposal, as it stands now, would eliminate the following voting locations:
- New Brunswick Housing Authority office – 7 Van Dyke Avenue
- Labor Education Center – 50 Labor Center Way
- Roosevelt School – 83 Livingston Avenue
- Hungarian Heritage Center – 300 Somerset Street
- Providence Square Apartments – 217 Somerset Street
- New Brunswick Senior Center – 81 Huntington Street
“Our authority to consolidate school election districts is found in NJSA 19:60-3,” wrote Lynch, noting that he did not run the plans by state officials.
“Because these actions fall within the purview of the regular business of the Board, there was no basis to address the State.”
Meanwhile, conflicting answers were given as to the role that the Board of Education and its embattled Business Administrator played in the proposal, and the reasons given for the changes do not make sense.
“We have to keep in mind that we are still under a pandemic. We’re trying to maintain the social distancing requirement,” said Zeledon, who has served as City Clerk since 2019.
“I am the one who chooses the locations with guidance from the state and the Board of Elections. Yes, we have reduced the polling locations for this school board election, but there are seven more than the previous year,” said Zeledon, referring to the 2020 elections conducted through “universal” mail-in voting, a system that will not be in place this year.
“I’m not trying to limit voter turnout,” Zeledon said, after facing criticism at a City Council meeting from several disappointed and disturbed residents including this reporter and the three candidates challenging the incumbents in the school election.
The critics pointed out that having less polling locations could lead to a greater risk of viral transmission.
“If you’re trying to social distance, common sense would say don’t have more people going to less places. The more places you have open, the more room people would have,” said Linda Stork, a retired teacher who is challenging the establishment in her second run for the New Brunswick Board of Education. “So what was the real reason that we couldn’t have all the polling places already open?”
Other area residents joined in with sharp criticism during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“I would like to know who made the decision to close which [polling place] and how it was made. Was it made because the minorities will be able to vote?” asked one city resident, Marge Kerber.
“To me, this is voter suppression. COVID-19 or no COVID-19, this is still voter suppression.”
The county’s top lawyer said that the school board was consulted about the elimination of polling locations, and implied that they had signed off on them.
“It’s my understanding that the Board of Elections, the municipal clerk, and also the school board… reviewed the polling locations,” said County Counsel Thomas Kelso, a close ally of convicted felon and former New Brunswick Mayor John Lynch, Jr.
County officials have said that the Elections Administrator Thomas Lynch is not related to the felonious ex-Mayor.
Despite his federal conviction, John Lynch, Jr. was a “great Mayor,” according to Governor Murphy, who has given similar praise to Lynch’s cousin and successor: the city’s current Mayor, Jim Cahill.
Kelso and Cahill have historically opposed having school board elections here, and fought to maintain the Mayor-appointed school board system that was in place until voters overthrew it in November 2012.
For his part, Mayor Cahill, who has been in office since 1991, “offered no comment” on the proposed elimination of polling locations, according to a spokesperson.
As we reported, Kelso also frequently represents some of the city’s biggest real estate developers including New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO), the company that recently cut a deal with the Board of Education to acquire and demolish a public school.
A resident of the Dewey Heights section of New Brunswick, Kelso would be one of the voters affected by the closure of the voting location at the Labor Education Center on the Rutgers University campus. Nevertheless, he defended the cutbacks to voting sites.
“New Jersey statutes specifically permit the consolidation of polling places,” said Kelso. “All the appropriate boards all concurred that the consolidation from fourteen to eight locations was appropriate.”
But when New Brunswick Today questioned the Board of Education, officials there denied having any role in the decision.
“I’m not involved, nor anyone in the school board in terms of choosing election sites for school board elections, or primary elections, or general elections,” said the school district’s Business Administrator Richard Jannarone.
“The New Brunswick Board of Education plays absolutely no role in the locations for casting your ballots during election time,” said Board of Education President Diana Solis, one of the three incumbent school board members running for re-election.
But that’s not accurate. Indeed, the Board of Education owns seven of the fourteen buildings normally used as polling locations, and coordinates with the Board of Elections to facilitate their use. The Board of Education also pays the Board of Elections to staff and run the operations on Election Day.
The website for the incumbents’ campaign, oddly named “New Beginnings for New Brunswick Schools,” also includes false information about the upcoming race: “This year, the ONLY WAY TO VOTE is by mail. Ballots will be mailed to your home.”
“I think you’re taking things out of context, as always, Mr. Kratovil,” Jannarone told this reporter during the March 23 school board meeting. “The Board of Ed has no role in deciding what locations are. The city does. They tell us where they are.”
But then, seconds later, Jannarone discussed the board having a role in the process, and uttered multiple falsehoods of his own.
“Matter of fact, for this election, the Board of Education was asked to add a location, which we did,” said Jannarone. “All the locations that are school board buildings that have always been normal locations are open, and in fact, we’ve added a location upon the city’s request.”
That’s also not true. There are no additional locations proposed and, while the Roosevelt School has always been a voting location during every in-person election held during the past decade, it is now on the chopping block.
When questioned further about the discrepancy, Jannarone falsely claimed that Roosevelt School “is not a selection site for school board elections.”
As we reported, Jannarone is still in charge of the school district’s nine-figure budget despite filing for bankruptcy himself last year.
This year, a team of three challengers running for the school board seats, known as the “Students First” team, issued a statement objecting to the elimination of polling places and said they support opening all fourteen locations.
“In many cases, communities of color and low-income residents are more likely to be impacted by the closures due to the high costs of transportation and the ugly history of segregation and discrimination in housing,” reads their statement issued on March 19.
Closures of the polling sites at the Hungarian Heritage Center, the Providence Square Apartments, and the New Brunswick Senior Center would also impact the same families that lost their neighborhood school when the Board of Education unanimously voted to close and sell the Lincoln Annex School to DEVCO, the notorious developer that recently began demolishing the school building, less than five years after it opened as a public school.
The cutbacks would also lead to the city’s public housing residents losing their traditional polling site in the epicenter of their community, and instead having to trek more than a mile to the city-owned Department of Public Works garage on Jersey Avenue.
It’s the latest slap in the face to the hundreds of families that live in the Schwarz Homes and Robeson Village, low-income communities that are managed by the New Brunswick Housing Authority (NBHA), which typically offers up its headquarters at 7 Van Dyke to serve as a voting location.
In 2018, it was one of the few locations where a challenger came in first place, when former NBHA Commissioner Jerry Mercado outdid all of his opponents there.
Executive Director John Clarke confirmed that the NBHA had nothing to do with eliminating that voting location.
“The NBHA has no roll in proposing or choosing sites for voting. The Community Room at 7 Van Dyke Avenue remains available for voting, should the City request use of that facility,” said Clarke.
The site normally serves residents of several other large developments including the 312 condominiums in the Hampton Club and the 55 apartments at Hampton Gardens, whose tenants would have to travel about 1.7 miles to vote.
This reporter walked the same journey that voters in Hampton Gardens would have to take, and it took 38 minutes.
But it’s not as bad as the arduous journey that the residents of Tov Manor and Dewey Heights will have if they try to vote on Election Day without the assistance of a vehicle.
Instead of re-assigning those voters to a location within the more walkable areas of New Brunswick, the closure of the Labor Education Center would force some residents to trek nearly two miles to the Woodrow Wilson School located deep inside the secluded Rutgers Village neighborhood.
Those voters would have to cut through private property and cross a pair of major highways, Route 1 and Route 18, just to make it to the polling place, and then do it all again to get home.
In 2020, in an election delayed by Executive Order of Governor Murphy, all but one of the nearly 1,100 voters who successfully cast ballots in the school election completed a “mail-in” ballot.
But many voters reported never receiving a ballot and thus were not able to vote. Still about 160 more saw their mail-in ballots rejected, including Patricia Varela, one of the winning Board of Education candidates.
Officials quietly opened just one polling place on May 12, but only for people who were disabled and could not use a paper ballot. One person voted at the Board of Education’s headquarters, casting the only “machine” vote of the day.
But in every other one of the nine school elections held in Hub City history, there have been exactly fourteen polling places throughout the city.
In the primary election, held in July 2020, there were four polling locations open in New Brunswick. That number increased to six in the November 2020 general election, as Governor Murphy failed to deliver on his promise that at least 50% of polling locations would be open for the big day.
As we reported, Murphy’s plans for that election were fraught with problems particularly here in Middlesex County, where several ballots were reported stolen, Murphy delayed a required runoff election, and an oversight by the Board of Elections allowed the election to be certified with almost a dozen valid ballots not yet counted.
When the Board of Elections had to schedule a special meeting to tally the forgotten ballots, those in attendance were exposed to COVID-19, according to the Middlesex County Health Department.
This year, as Murphy prepares to run for re-election, he has done away with the automatic mailing of ballots to all active voters. Instead, only those who have requested a mail-in ballot will receive one.
Even as he strives to portray himself as a champion of voting rights, the Governor and his team have thus far declined to intervene and require that all polling places be opened for the New Brunswick election.
“I’ve got no opinion on the New Brunswick polling locations, other than this is the first I’m hearing of it,” Governor Murphy said on March 22, before referring questions on the move to his Chief Counsel Parimal Garg.
“I can’t speak to any decision an individual municipality makes with respect to its polling locations,” said Garg.
Last year, leaning on the automatic distribution of mail-in ballots, Murphy authorized counties to cut down on the number of in-person polling places, but fell short of his promise to maintain at least half of the sites in each county.
On August 14, Murphy promised the citizens of the state that “all counties must ensure that 50% of the normal polling places are open” for the November 3 general election.
“Today’s executive order will also require a minimum of at least one polling place in each municipality and a minimum of 50 percent of polling places in each county to provide New Jersey voters with access to in-person voting opportunities, including accommodations for voters with disabilities,” reads an inaccurate statement issued by the Murphy administration.
But one-third of the state’s 21 counties failed to make Murphy an honest man, with Middlesex falling far short of the benchmark.
In 2019, there were 274 places to vote in Middlesex County. But, in 2020, barely 35% of those locations were opened to voters, leaving only 97 locations to accommodate a Presidential election.
However, Murphy included a loophole in his executive order that allowed counties to evade the 50% requirement by declaring some of their polling places to be “large voting centers.”
New Brunswick Today tried to find out which of the 97 locations were “large voting centers” but the response from the Board of Elections was to defer to the County Clerk’s Office. Officials in that office did not respond to our question.
Murphy never took responsibility for the broken promise and his public relations team avoided questions about it.
“We’ll decline comment for now,” said Murphy’s Communications Director Mahen Gunaratna, after the election had passed and repeated inquiries about the failure went unanswered.
On March 30, Murphy held an event where he celebrated the signing of legislation that will, for the first time, allow voters to cast ballots on voting machines in the days leading up to certain elections.
However, those elections do not include April school elections, and the legislation does not change the existing law that allows municipalities to cut back on polling locations for such contests.
Murphy was joined by former Georgia legislator Stacy Abrams, who has become known for her work opposing voter suppression.
“It’s up to us, the voters of America, to stand together, whether we’re in Georgia, in Texas, or in New Jersey to say that we are one nation under God, and that we are one nation whose democracy should not depend on our geography,” said Abrams.
However, for many New Brunswick residents, if the Board of Elections follows through on the proposed cutbacks to polling locations, local geography could take on an even larger role in how easy it is to vote here on April 20.
Editor’s Note: The author of this article is a volunteer and supporter of the Students First New Brunswick campaign.
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.