Atlantic County’s Board of Elections is trying to figure out whether mail-in-ballot applications partially filled out for residents by a super political action committee should be considered messenger ballots.
The applications were mailed to Atlantic County residents by General Majority PAC, a super PAC supporting Democratic Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo and his Assembly running mate Freeholder Colin Bell, who are running against Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown and Freeholder Will Pauls. The applications, which came with a letter signed by former congressional candidate Bill Hughes Jr., have a recipient’s name and address already filled out.
An email sent by Board of Elections Chair Evelynn Caterson on Sept. 16 to the rest of the board and board clerks, obtained by The Press, asks whether the completed forms count as messenger ballots.
“I think we should figure this out NOW and ask the DAG (Deputy Attorney General) whether this letter and completed MIB (Mail-in-Ballot) form constitutes a messenger ballot as it is defined by law,” Caterson wrote in the email.
In the email, Caterson said she was told that “hundreds” of such letters and applications were mailed.
Any voter may apply for a mail-in ballot by an authorized messenger — who may bring ballots to voters — but the messenger must be either a family member or a registered voter in the county. General Majority PAC is based in Washington, D.C., and lists a P.O. Box in Milltown, Middlesex County.
The “Authorized Messenger” portions of the applications were not filled out on the forms mailed to residents. Neither were the “Assistor” portions, to be filled out by any person helping a voter complete the application.
Caterson said she would not speak on behalf of the board, but said the Board of Elections will discuss the issue at its Sept. 29 meeting. She said no action, such as contacting the deputy attorney general, would be taken until after the meeting.
“When I receive information from a citizen with a question about election process, I do not answer as an individual,” Caterson said. “But I indicate that I will bring it to the Board of Elections for discussion. Whatever it is will be discussed at the next Board of Elections meeting.”
Ezra Reese, an attorney for General Majority PAC, said no one from the super PAC has physically assisted the voter in completing the form, and no one from General Majority PAC will deliver the ballot to the voter.
“Accordingly, these are not ‘assistor ballots’ nor ‘messenger ballots,’” Reese said. “New Jersey law is clear that merely writing a voter’s name and address on a form is a ministerial act and does not require one’s signature as a messenger or assistor.”
The Hughes-signed letters accompanying the applications are essentially pro-Mazzeo and Bell campaign literature.
“That’s why we need to add Colin Bell to the Atlantic County State Assembly Team,” the letter said. “For 40 years, New Jersey promised that casinos would operate only in Atlantic City. Only Mazzeo, Bell and (Sen. Jim) Whelan will stand in the way of the lobbyists and Trenton politicians who will break that promise.”
The letter asks residents to return the enclosed vote-by-mail application “to help Vince Mazzeo and Colin Bell protect your interests in Trenton.”
Hughes said he was asked to sign his name to a letter whose content he approved, but he said he was unaware of the attachments to the letter.
Still, Hughes agreed with Reese that filling out just the name and address was not enough for it to be considered “assistance” in filling out the application.
“Merely conducting a mail merge of names and addresses onto an application, I highly doubt, is the level of assistance contemplated by the statute,” Hughes said. “It is the substantive content of the application, namely the signature and the delivery of the signature, that is the focus of the statute.”
Super PACs cannot coordinate directly with candidates or political parties. Kevin Stamps, campaign manager for Mazzeo and Bell for Assembly, said the campaign didn’t know about the letters and applications.
“We were unaware of this independent effort and couldn't have any input or coordination with it under federal law,” Stamps said.
Stamps said the campaign is working with voters who want to vote by mail
“We should be encouraging voter participation, whether by traditional get-out-the-vote efforts or newer efforts with vote-by-mail, especially when we've seen more and more voters stay home,” Stamps said.