An impressive 96,369 votes were cast in this year’s midterm election in Atlantic County, according to certified election results.
Allegations of voter fraud are common in Atlantic City, and sometimes pop up in other towns — usually over suspected mishandling of mail-in ballots.
Use of the paper ballots, which hit a high of almost 12,000 of 96,000 votes cast in Atlantic County this November, is increasing with each election.
That trend worries those concerned about ballot tampering and encourages those focused on increasing voter participation.
The question is: How can election officials avoid both the reality of voter fraud and the perception of it, which undercuts faith in the electoral process, while allowing people access to the convenient form of voting?
“The idea that Election Day should be one 14-hour Tuesday in November is archaic,” said Atlantic County Democratic Committee Chairman Mike Suleiman, who said his ideal would be all mail-in voting.
Vote by mail is more convenient and allows more people to be part of the process, Suleiman said.
But unlike the machine count and provisional ballots, mail-ins are not overseen by election workers at all times. They go out through the mail and come back that way.
That means there is more opportunity for tampering with mail-ins than any other type of ballot, said Republican Freeholder Chairman Frank Formica, who narrowly won re-election last month after his Democrat opponent garnered a deluge of mail-in votes.
Large numbers of mail-ins came in from Pleasantville and Atlantic City for Celeste Fernandez. They narrowed Formica’s lead from 3,600 in the machine vote to about 1,700 overall.
About 20 percent of the votes cast in both Atlantic City and Pleasantville were mail-ins this year, compared with about 12 percent countywide, according to data from the Atlantic County Clerk’s Office. Last year, 24 percent to 27 percent were mail-ins in those towns compared to 10 percent countywide.
Republican Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian alleged in November 2017 he lost his re-election bid to Frank Gilliam because his opponents paid homeless people, senior citizens and other struggling residents to vote Democrat using messenger ballots — mail-in ballots that are physically handled by either a family member or other registered voter.
Guardian’s campaign hired private investigators, collected testimonies, requested a probe into the use of messenger ballots and tried challenging some ballots before they were officially counted. But his efforts failed, and law enforcement — including the state Attorney General’s Office — declined to investigate.
Atlantic City Council President Marty Small was twice charged with voter fraud by tampering with mail-in ballots but was exonerated each time.
Formica doesn’t want mail-in use discouraged, he said. But he wants better oversight and checking of ballots.
An impressive 96,369 votes were cast in this year’s midterm election in Atlantic County, according to certified election results.
“We can figure out a lot of things in this world. The last thing we need to do is say we can’t figure out a mail-in ballot that hasn’t been compromised,” said Formica.
Formica said the system needs reforming to make sure every mail-in is a legal vote. He wants more auditing of voter rolls to make sure people who have died are removed and addresses on voter registrations are legitimate.
But Superintendent of Elections Maureen Bugdon said her office already updates voter rolls, removing those who have died.
Her senior investigator, Marge Durdack, who has been with the office for 17 years, said she gets information on deceased residents of the county and state monthly from the Social Security Administration and Department of Human Services.
She also combs newspaper obituaries and other sources for information to update voter rolls, she said.
“All that stuff you hear about dead people voting is simply not true,” said Durdack.
However, if a person died after moving out of state, the office may not hear about it unless the family calls, said Bugdon.
Suleiman said he believes Republicans’ concerns are more about keeping people in places like Pleasantville and Atlantic City from voting, since they tend to be minorities who vote Democratic.
“When older Republican folks who live in Ventnor and Margate and are snowbirds vote by mail, that’s OK,” he said of people who spend their winters in Florida. “You can’t pick and choose.”
A judge has ordered a recount of the Hamilton Township Committee election results Friday, said Atlantic County Board of Elections Chairwoman Evelynn Caterson.
While he most favors all voting be via mail, Suleiman also favors early voting in person.
“I’m a big believer in same-day registration (on Election Day, which he said should be a national holiday to give working people a day off to vote). In fact, I think registering to vote is an unnecessary step,” said Suleiman. “To me, you automatically get a Social Security card, and you should be automatically registered to vote (when you turn 18).”
Republican state Sen. Chris Brown, who is sponsoring legislation to increase penalties for voter fraud, said every time someone votes fraudulently it cancels out someone else’s legitimate vote.
“We have to be sure that in our zeal to increase voter turnout we don’t disenfranchise others,” said Brown.
State law changed in 2005 to allow anyone to request a mail-in for any reason. Since then, numbers of mail-in ballots have increased dramatically.
The previous high was 9,416 in 2016, the presidential election year that ushered in the Donald Trump presidency, when more than 119,000 total votes were cast in Atlantic County.
There are safeguards to make sure the mail-in ballot came from the particular voter, said Board of Elections Chairwoman Evelynn Caterson.
But they are split among the three offices that oversee elections in the county — the County Clerk, Board of Elections and Superintendent of Elections.
So no one office has complete knowledge of what is being done, but only its own piece.
The Board checks the signature on the returned mail-in ballot against the signature on the application requesting a mail-in; the County Clerk checks the signature on the request for a mail-in against the signature on the poll book.
It all should work together to make sure no one can request a mail-in ballot in someone else’s name, but signatures still sometimes don’t match, Caterson said.
The board can request more copies of the signature from the poll book, or ask the superintendent’s office to investigate.
But even if the signature is the legitimate voter’s signature, “we have no way of knowing who actually filled out the mail-in ballot,” she said.
She favors finding better methods for identifying voters rather than just relying on signatures, but technological solutions are difficult to come by when paper ballots are involved, she acknowledged.
George H.W. Bush always reminded Richard E. Squires of his father.
“He (Bush) was up from the grassroots. He worked his way up as far as his occupation,” Squires, 85, a former Atlantic County executive, said Saturday. “I sort of looked up to him.”
Bush, who also served as a World War II Navy pilot, in Congress, as an ambassador and as CIA director before being vice president and president, died Friday at 94.
Squires met Bush once and was in a room with him another time.
They shook hands Oct. 22, 1992, at Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township, where Bush arrived aboard Air Force One en route to a re-election campaign stop in Vineland.
Clad in a white raincoat and smiling broadly, Bush emerged from the Boeing 747 and waved to a crowd of several hundred who greeted him with warm cheers and applause.
Bush shook hands, signed autographs and posed for pictures with many of the airport well-wishers before departing by helicopter for Vineland.
Squires, then a top Republican as the Atlantic County executive, enthusiastically shook Bush’s hand and offered words of encouragement.
“I told him that we’re all behind him,” Squires said. “I also told him to keep at it.”
Bush’s helicopter landed at the Vineland Developmental Center, about 2 miles from the rally site. Though it was not officially open to the public, the chopper pad attracted a crowd.
He was introduced by then Republican congressional candidate, now retiring Congressman Frank LoBiondo.
I will always remember his visit to Vineland in 1992, the crowds of #SouthJersey residents who gathered in support of his Presidency, and the way he always remained a man of great character and respect. #Bush41Legacy pic.twitter.com/R8Az77GG9D— Frank LoBiondo (@RepLoBiondo) December 1, 2018
After the rally, held in the center of downtown at Seventh Street and Landis Avenue, and a quick lunch at nearby Vineland Cold Cuts, Bush headed for another campaign stop in North Jersey.
Besides greeting Bush in October 1992, Squires remembers being in a room with the former president earlier that year during the summer at a campaign fundraiser at a private home in Longport.
“Secret Service had it all arranged which way would be the emergency exit because it was at a private house,” Squires said.
Squires recalls there being no more than 30 people at the private fundraiser, so it was higher-priced than normal. He did not have to pay because he was the county executive.
During the war in Somalia, also in the early 1990s, a group of residents from Atlantic and Cape May counties raised more than $50,000 to establish an orphanage in the small village of Baidoa in an attempt to feed, house and educate thousands of starving Somali children.
Robert Mullock, who was a Cape May insurance broker at the time, embraced the fundraising effort.
Mullock said Bush’s last international trip as president was a visit to the orphanage.
“He flew from Washington, D.C., to halfway around the world to go to this little orphanage in Somalia. I just think that speaks volumes of the heart that he had. It’s the kind of thing you don’t see much anymore in our presidential politics, whether it’s Republican or Democratic,” said Mullock, 69, who lives in Cape May Point.
LoBiondo released a statement on his Facebook page Saturday that said America has lost a true patriot.
“From W.W. II to Congress to Director of the CIA and the Oval Office, President George H.W. Bush served with integrity, honesty and humility. He leaves a legacy we should all look up to,” LoBiondo wrote. “Rest In Peace Mr. President...you return to your beautiful wife Barbara’s side once more.”
It’s been two months since the trial in the 2012 murder of April Kauffman came to a close. This coming week, the man charged in her death will likely learn his fate.
In October, a jury found Ferdinand “Freddy” Augello, 62, of Upper Township, guilty on six charges: April Kauffman’s murder, conspiracy to murder James Kauffman and four charges related to running an illegal opioid ring out of James Kauffman’s medical practice. James Kauffman, 68, was also charged in the murder of his wife, but died in an apparent jail suicide in late January.
As of Friday, Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Bernard DeLury was scheduled to sentence Augello on Wednesday at the criminal complex in Mays Landing.
Augello’s attorney Mary Linehan declined to comment but said last month she had filed a motion for a new trial that would be heard the same day.
Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office spokeswoman Donna Weaver did not respond to a request for comment.
The notice of motion, filed Oct. 5, states that Linehan would ask DeLury for an “order granting a new trial based on the fact that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence.”
In a supporting letter brief dated Nov. 21, Linehan notes that two days after the verdict, complaints were made public from one current and two former Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office employees alleging violations in the Kauffman case.
“The defendant seeks to call the two former and one current employee of the Prosecutor’s Office as witnesses in the new trial motion,” the brief reads. “The witnesses the defendant plans to call have publicly stated that the evidence that was withheld by the Prosecutor’s office falls squarely within the Brady requirements,” a term for potentially exculpatory evidence.
But on Friday, DeLury decided the current and former employees could not testify, their attorney, Michelle Douglass, confirmed Saturday, because the complaint was a letter and not sworn testimony or statements.
The Nov. 21 letter also asks the court to consider Augello’s lack of a past criminal record in his sentencing if a new trial is not granted.
Augello seems to be holding out hope for a chance at leniency. Through a surrogate, as he has no internet access from jail, Augello has been asking supporters on Facebook to write letters on his behalf, according to a post on his Facebook page dated Nov. 21.
Former Atlantic County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Lloyd Levenson, who is now a defense attorney, said that in addition to the charges and mandatory minimum sentences, DeLury will consider the defendant’s pre-sentence report, which will include the character letters Augello has requested his supporters write, when he sentences Augello.
“That’s sort of your background, everything from birth to how you grew up, what your relationship was with your family, any criminal background,” Levenson said.
He said the defense attorney and the defendant also have a chance to review the report.
“Sometimes it’s helpful when someone finally comes to grips with the fact that they did something, they’re remorseful,” Levenson said.
Augello, a signmaker, musician and retired member of the Pagans motorcycle club, has maintained his innocence despite the conviction in interviews with The Press, letters to the newspaper and on social media.
“I’ve murdered no one, sir,” Augello wrote in a recent letter to The Press of Atlantic City. “I’ve been convicted of arranging the murder of Mrs. Kauffman with Francis Mulholland, a man I hardly knew and actually never held a conversation with more than to say, ‘Hello, Frank. How’s it going?’”
Levenson said the state has a chance to bring in character witnesses during the sentencing. April Kauffman’s daughter, Kim Pack, who did not comment about the sentencing, said she planned to give a statement Wednesday.
Levenson said that in this case, Augello is facing life in prison and a mandatory minimum of 30 years in jail. He said the judge cannot just decide to sentence him for less time.
“With a normal defendant, you would get as many character letters as you could get. This is not normal here,” he said.