Political engagement is strong these days, and voters put a lot of effort into evaluating the qualities and positions of candidates and their parties. In this democracy, that’s the basis for responsive and lawful government at all levels.
But only if their votes actually determine who takes office. In Atlantic County, the repeated overturning of choices by voters at the polls by bunches of mailed and messenger ballots suggests election security and oversight no longer guarantee a genuine democracy.
Every election seems to cast fresh doubts on the desire and ability of officials and legislators to ensure that fraud isn’t voiding the will of the voting public.
The latest is the discovery that a super political action committee formed ahead of November’s election is connected to the Callaway family of Atlantic City and Pleasantville — a family with a history of criminal convictions related to politics.
Super PACs can raise unlimited funds and advocate for a candidate. Federal law prohibits them from coordinating with federal candidates, but the New Jersey law that bars coordination in local, county and state elections is being held up in court and hasn’t taken effect.
The new super PAC — Our South Jersey — supported candidates in the election who trailed their opponents badly in the votes cast at polling places, where both parties’ observers oversee the process, and voters’ signatures are checked against prior signatures in front of witnesses, ensuring the ballot is legitimate.
But some of the super PAC’s candidates won anyway, when a deluge of messenger and mail-in ballots supporting them — filled out under circumstances unknown and often arriving at the last minute — were added to the totals.
That this has been going on for many years is a growing shame on state and local officials and legislators.
The late state Sen. Jim Whelan tried to fight this blight on democracy — tied to the Callaway organization then too — by getting legislation enacted in 2007 that limited messenger ballots to 10 per person delivering them. When that turned out to be completely inadequate to ensuring the validity of local elections, Whelan pushed through another law dropping the number allowed to just three.
As we said at the time, messenger ballots shouldn’t be allowed at all. They are mail-in ballots picked up by a third party from the County Clerk’s Office, taken to voters, and brought back by the same messenger or by another person who acts as bearer. The registered voter is supposed to decide who to vote for without influence, but the system relies on the honesty of all involved.
The head of the organization, Atlantic City political operative Craig Callaway, in 2006 was sentenced to 40 months in federal prison for taking bribes. In 2008, he admitted helping to organize a blackmail scheme against a fellow Atlantic City councilman and got an additional three-year sentence.
Brother David Callaway was sentenced to more than four years in prison for his role in the blackmail scheme, and subsequently was found guilty of harassment. Brother Ronald Callaway was convicted of conspiracy and other charges in 2009 and died while serving his sentence.
Craig Callaway said recently he has no knowledge of the source and use of funding in the vote scheme.
“There is no paper trail for anything. I just try to help people get out the vote. ... I’m not going to tell you anything. I’m not bound to tell you. Let them figure it out. I have no comment,” he said.
The vulnerability of Atlantic City and Atlantic County to election fraud has become a joke. As Temple University history professor Bryant Simon — author of “Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America” — told The Press, “For $25,000, you can’t buy any votes in New York City. But you can buy a lot of votes in Atlantic City.”
That joke is on the legitimate voters of the county and city, and it has been made possible by the Democrats — who have rewritten election rules to make the flood of poorly secured messenger and mail-in ballots possible — and the courts and election officials who haven’t ensured voting integrity.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The rules could be tightened so that unverifiable ballots are almost impossible. The oversight and enforcement of election law could crack down on vote fraud attempts.
Candidates who benefit from dubious vote schemes should answer to the public for their role in this intolerable undermining of confidence in local democracy.
And voters could fairly assume that state leaders and representatives who refuse to do anything about it tolerate, if not embrace, the possibility of getting and keeping power without legitimate approval from the majority of the electorate.