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High returns, some issues pop up in vote-by-mail primary

With more than two weeks to go until the state’s first vote-by-mail primary election July 7, the Atlantic County Board of Elections has already received 12,800 completed ballots, while a mix-up has caused the post office to mistakenly return some filled-out ballots to voters.

That’s already more vote-by-mail ballots than the county elections board has processed in any past election, including general elections, and many times the number of any previous primary. If returns keep coming in at that rate, the elections board may find itself handling 50,000 ballots or more.

And a U.S. District Court order is requiring county Boards of Elections to be more lenient in accepting signatures. They also must notify voters when their votes are tentatively rejected for signature problems, and give them time to send back a form to verify their vote.

“In a way, it’s good New Jersey’s doing this with a primary, which is a smaller-scale election,” said John Froonjian, executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University. “Hopefully we will find what bugs there are, and can get them out of the system before the big one,” should the state have to have a mostly vote-by-mail presidential election in November.

Debate set for leading Democrats vying to oust Van Drew

The three leading Democrats in the primary race for the nomination in New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District will debate June 25 in an online event sponsored by the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

The hotly contested Democratic primary in the 2nd Congressional District for the right to try to oust U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, is no doubt driving some of the voting volume, Froonjian said.

Atlantic County Board of Elections Chairperson Evelynn Caterson said it will be important to be able to contact voters as early as possible when signature problems arise, to give them plenty of time to return the required paperwork. She encouraged voters to return their completed ballots quickly to allow time for problems to be addressed.

Atlantic County Deputy Clerk Michael Sommers said Thursday some of the 107,000 vote-by-mail primary ballots his office sent out to registered Democrats and Republicans were filled out and mailed back to the county, but it appears postal workers fed them into machines incorrectly. That caused the machine to read the bar code for the voter’s address rather than the Board of Elections, Sommers said.

“It’s definitely a post office issue,” Sommers said. “The ballot design was pre-approved by the post office.”

A U.S. Postal Service spokesperson said he would investigate the situation.

Cape May County Clerk Rita Fulginiti said her office sent out 44,146 ballots to registered voters in both parties, and 7,539 have been completed and received by the Board of Elections for processing.

“That’s not one of the things we’re experiencing,” Fulginiti said of postal problems. “We’re experiencing a heavy call volume. Voters are outraged that they have to vote by mail, and we are spending a lot of time speaking to individual voters.”

Atlantic County Superintendent of Elections Maureen Bugdon recommended people consider using one of the county’s five secure lock boxes if they are concerned about problems with the Postal Service.

Three of those lock boxes were installed by Thursday, county officials said. They are located at the Atlantic County Office Building, 1333 Atlantic Ave., Atlantic City; Galloway Township Municipal Hall, 300 E. Jimmie Leeds Road; and the Hammonton Municipal Building at 100 Central Ave.

Drop boxes that will begin servicing voters by Monday will be at the Egg Harbor Township Municipal Hall, 3515 Bargaintown Road; and the Buena Vista Township Municipal Hall, 890 Harding Highway.

Every county must have five secure lock boxes set up for this election, per Gov. Phil Murphy’s orders. Murphy moved the primary to July 7 from June 2 and made it a mostly vote-by-mail election to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus. Each municipality will have one polling station open July 7, but machines will be available only for those with disabilities, Murphy said. Others who show up on Election Day will have to fill out paper provisional ballots.

Froonjian said the new rules on evaluating signatures will help minimize voter disenfranchisement.

“The way that I read it, it seemed like they are given a lot of leeway that if signatures are close they should accept them,” said Froonjian. “So if that cuts down on the number of rejected ballots, it will really help.”

National studies show about 1% of vote-by-mail ballots are rejected for a number of reasons, the most common being signature discrepancies, he said.

In the May special election, also mostly vote-by-mail, some of the 31 towns in New Jersey holding elections that day saw 10% rejection rates, Froonjian said, citing an analysis by NJ Spotlight.

Locally, Ocean City and Atlantic City held special elections in May, and in Ocean City the rejection rate was 2.8%, in Atlantic City 3.3%, Spotlight reported.

“Especially for the first-time mail voters, the process is really unfamiliar,” Froonjian said. “It could be they simply forget to sign or signed a little sloppy. ... Even if it’s 1%, that’s hundreds of voters in a district election who could be disenfranchised for a simple mistake.”

Cumberland County tech school graduates first senior class

VINELAND — It was already going to be a special graduation as Cumberland County Technical Education Center’s first senior class was preparing to graduate this spring.

The COVID-19 pandemic made it unforgettable.

“This has been such an emotional time for all of us here. It’s almost surreal. But in true TEC fashion, every person you think of here, we’re out-of-the-box thinkers ... and it’s almost fitting that this is an out-of-the-box commencement ceremony,” said Dina Rossi, the school’s superintendent.

On Thursday, 233 seniors who started their high school career in 2016 as the only class at the Cumberland County vocational school said their final goodbyes with a drive-thru parade in front of the school. In-person ceremonies have been delayed until July due to the new coronavirus.

Emergency sirens blared and horns beeped as a parade of cars lined up at the college and made their way down the access road to the front of the vocational school that was lined on both sides with cheering faculty and staff.

The lap around the campus was their last as CCTEC administrators decided against having an in-person event in July for health and safety reasons.

One by one the seniors exited their cars and walked up to accept their diploma before departing to their vehicle and driving through the blue-and-white balloon arch.

Senior Class President Tabitha Gentiletti led the parade and was immediately brought to tears.

“It’s a lot,” she said. “It feels surreal to be here after not being here since March 17 and seeing all the teachers all at once, and knowing it’s the last time I might see them.”

Gentiletti was scheduled to give a speech as part of a virtual celebration later Thursday evening but said if she could tell her class one thing at that moment, “I would tell them I love them very, very much.”

Armani Bunton, of Millville, wore a personalized stole with her name and photos as she accepted her diploma.

“I feel great,” she said. “It wasn’t my ideal graduation, but it’s still better than nothing.”

Charles Pepper, of Bridgeton, is joining the Air Force after high school and was happy to have a celebration now, as he wouldn’t be able to participate in a July event.

“I think it’s a great way to replace a normal graduation,” Pepper said. “It makes us feel special.”

Chemistry teacher Amanda Mason, who was hired for the school before the building opened and has taught nearly every member of the senior class at some point, cheered on her students.

“It’s been a unique and amazing experience,” Mason said. “To see them, specifically, grow and lead this school into what it has become.”

She said many of the clubs and organizations in the school were established because of the senior class.

“They’re such a unique group of leaders, and I think it comes with this unique experience of being the first class to establish a new school,” Mason said.

Ruth Barreiro, now a teacher at Clearview Regional High School in Mullica Hill, taught the engineering program when the school opened in 2016 and came back Thursday to see her former students graduate.

“I promised these kids I would be here,” Barreiro said. “I’m so excited for them. I can’t wait to see where they go from here.”

Rossi said throughout the school closure that began in March, members of the senior class have made the best of their situation and stayed positive and celebratory of their final year.

“It’s been such an amazing, reflective year in and of itself, and then with the current situation that we find ourselves in, it has been even more reflective and more inspiring every day,” she said.

CCTEC opened its $70 million, 203,000-square-foot campus in 2016 to about 240 full-time freshmen. Each subsequent year, the building, located adjacent to the Rowan College of South Jersey-Cumberland campus, welcomed a new freshman class.

Rossi thanked the parents and students for their commitment to the school four years ago.

“Our building wasn’t even established when we started to recruit for this school. They really had to take a chance and put us to the test to see if we were going to follow through with everything we said we would,” she said, adding students and staff surpassed the benchmarks and goals they had set for themselves.

GALLERY: Cumberland County Technical Education Center graduation ceremony 2020

Lighthouse International Film Festival features two docs with South Jersey ties

This year’s edition of the Lighthouse International Film Festival features two documentaries of particular interest to South Jersey.

Oscar-winning documentarian Julia Reichert, who spent her summers growing up on Long Beach Island, returns to the festival with her newest full-length work Saturday. Titled “9to5: The Story of a Movement,” it is a tale about the fight during the 1970s by American secretaries fed up with on-the-job abuse that inspired the movie starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, as well as the Grammy-winning song by Parton.

“The Pine Barrens” is a documentary filmed over six years in the 1.1 million acres located in the middle of the state. The film, which will be screened Friday, is about an unknowable place and the passions and defiance of the characters connected to it.

The Lighthouse International Film Festival is proceeding this year as a drive-in film festival for the first time because of COVID-19 precautions. New films will be shown on big screens at three pop-up, drive-in venues through Sunday.

The festival features a total of 28 films including world premieres and SXSW and Sundance titles.

Reichert, 73, said the fact that she made a documentary with her partner Steven Bognar about the 9to5 movement happened a little bit by chance.

“I ran into an old friend in Washington D.C., Karen Nussbaum. She is in the film,” Reichert said.

Reichert had just had her first grandchild and had just finished making her short TV documentary “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant” in 2009.

“That movement (9to5) was quite influential at the time,” said Reichert, who added it was the first time sexual harassment was challenged. “It kind of struck me that the movement shouldn’t be forgotten about. ... We thought it was a good part of history to bring back.”

Reichert deciding to make a documentary out of the 9to5 story is not totally out of left field.

In 1978, she was nominated for an Academy Award for her 1976 documentary feature “Union Maids.” In that film, three female union organizers of the early Depression era discuss and reminisce about their actions of the time.

“It (‘Union Maids’) was an oral history film. People telling their stories. There are no experts, no historians and no union leaders,” Reichert said. “‘9to5’ is a sister movie from a different era.”

Reichert started shooting “9to5” seven years ago, but she put a pause in making it to create last year’s “American Factory,” which won her and her Northfield-raised nephew Oscar statues for best documentary feature in February. Jeff Reichert was not involved with “9to5.”

“9to5: The Story of a Movement” also was selected to be shown at this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, which was canceled in the early days of COVID-19 in the U.S.

Reichert chose to make a documentary bringing the “9to5” movement to light, while David Scott Kessler decided to create a documentary that will show most viewers aspects of the Pine Barrens they have never seen, even if they have lived in New Jersey their entire lives.

The Pinelands National Reserve occupies 22% of the state’s land area, including territory in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties.

“I had a fascination before I ever went there. It’s a strange place. Who are the Pineys?” asked Kessler, 44, of Philadelphia, who added he may have first heard about the Pine Barrens through Weird New Jersey magazine.

Kessler, a Union County native, had award-winning illustrator Allen Crawford serve as a guide to Kessler while he was filming and take him to places he would have never found on his own. Crawford, who grew up in the Pine Barrens, appears in the documentary.

Besides the forest itself and Crawford, “The Pine Barrens” features Port Republic Mayor and traditional craftmaker Gary B. Giberson, a basket weaver, a cranberry farmer, a songwriter and dozens of bonfire storytellers.

Kessler hopes his documentary can serve as the cinematic equivalent of American writer John McPhee’s 1968 book “The Pine Barrens,” which he said sparked the political will to make the Pinelands a national reserve.

“The whole project grew over all these years,” said Kessler. For instance, “the politics of the pipeline” — a proposed but ultimately scrapped South Jersey Gas pipeline that would have run from Maurice River Township to the former B.L. England plant in Upper Township — “I didn’t touch on during the first few years of filming.”

Atlantic City water park will be 'best' in country, Showboat owner says

ATLANTIC CITY — Bart Blatstein is looking to make waves with a proposed $100 million water park next to his Showboat Hotel property, promising an aquatic-amusement experience he says will be second to none.

“This will be the best, pound for pound, indoor water park in the country,” Blatstein said Thursday morning during a land use hearing of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. “We’ve spent many, many hours designing something that’s going to be completely unique, so that when you arrive here at Showboat, you’ll know that you’re somewhere different.”

But the splashy amusement park may dampen Blatstein’s plans to bring gaming back to the Showboat.

Last year, Blatstein told state gaming regulators he intended to circumvent an existing deed restriction on gaming-related activities for the Showboat property by building a new casino on an adjoining lot. On Thursday, Blatstein responded to an inquiry about the gaming facility’s future by saying it was “a hard question to answer.”

“I’m focused on a water park now,” he said. “If there will be gaming in the future, that’s not something I’m interested in right now. It’s just the water park.”

The Philadelphia-based developer said less than 10% of annual visitors to Atlantic City are families. Blatstein believes the proposed 100,000-square-foot water park and entertainment center will be a catalyst for getting more families to the city.

“This is, basically, a family resort with a hotel anchored by an indoor water park, and there’ll be many, many other amenities,” Blatstein said. “My team and I are very, very excited about developing this property.”

Mayor Marty Small Sr. joined Blatstein at a news conference Thursday afternoon and said Atlantic City needs family focused, noncasino amenities.

“We can’t survive on (casino gaming) alone anymore. We have to diversify,” Small said. “Our weak spot, our Achilles’ heel, our sore spot, is a lack of family attractions.”

The Showboat’s yet-to-be-named aquatic park will feature water slides, pools and a lazy river, in addition to food and beverage outlets, party rooms, locker rooms, retail stands and lounge areas, according to the application. A retractable glass-pane roof will cover the entire park and make it a year-round facility.

The project also calls for a renovation of the Showboat’s existing Premier Light Tower for water park guests and the construction of a family entertainment center, with arcade games, mini golf and laser tag, inside the hotel.

The water park will be built on an existing lot between Showboat and Ocean Casino Resort, just off the Boardwalk.

The CRDA Land Use Board heard the initial application by Blatstein’s Showboat Renaissance LLC for minor subdivision approval, variance relief and major preliminary site plan. The CRDA Board of Directors is expected to consider the application requests at its July 21 public meeting.

A final site plan application has not been submitted.

According to The Associated Press, Blatstein intends to use a state sales tax credit to help finance the project over the course of 20 years. The $100 million cost of the water park project is only an estimate.

Blastein purchased Showboat from Stockton University for $23 million in 2016, two years after Caesars Entertainment Corp. closed the casino hotel as part of the company’s bankruptcy restructuring. The Showboat has been operating as a noncasino hotel for the past four years.

Blatstein sold the building on the Playground Pier in January — a property he leased for $2.7 million in 2015 — after stating he would invest more than $50 million into the former Pier Shops at Caesars. He also owns the closed Garden Pier across from Ocean Casino Resort.