Atlantic County Republicans have long had Democratic County Clerk Ed McGettigan in their sights for mistakes on election ballots during the past four years, and this year it has become a campaign theme.
While mistakes were the main theme of the convention speeches that led to the nomination of attorney Michele Verno as McGettigan's election opponent, how many of those errors were actually the responsibility of the Clerk's Office?
Not many, says McGettigan, who blamed many of the errors on others - a local clerk, mailing houses and the printer.
"The people criticizing the ballot process have never been involved in creating a ballot and don't know the steps or the procedures taken," McGettigan said.
Verno, however, said the clerk is ultimately responsible for all ballot mistakes, no matter where they originate, and that "the buck stops" with McGettigan.
"In my work, my name's on the letterhead," Verno said. "Every decision that comes out of his office, that's his responsibility."
Among the issues raised:
- In 2007, several sample ballots intended for Galloway Township were mistakenly mailed to homes in Absecon. A similar error took place in 2008 in Galloway Township, and this year in Buena Borough.
"People say, ‘Oh, it's a clerical error,'" Verno said. "But people were disenfranchised by a clerical error."
In 2007, Clerk's Office spokesman John Piatt said the fault lied with the mailing house. Superintendent of Elections John Mooney also blamed the mailing house when errors occurred in ballots the following year.
McGettigan said in any case, those errors were not his office's responsibility, since the lists for the actual polling places were drawn up by the Board of Elections and sent to his office.
- Before the 2007 Galloway Township primary, Republican candidate Tom Price's name was left off sample and absentee ballots.
McGettigan, however, blamed the error on the Galloway Township Clerk's Office; ballot proofs were sent to all municipal clerks, and Galloway's clerk verified theirs. Then-Galloway Township Clerk Karen Bacon agreed in a 2007 Press of Atlantic City article about the error.
Although she claimed the ballot proofs were sent to her office "piecemeal," she added that "I unfortunately assumed that Mr. Price's would come in later. I completely forgot about it."
Last week, Kevin Passante, an owner of Royal Printing, which printed the ballots, said "the candidate was never certified correctly from the municipal clerk of Galloway."
- In 2009, Mary Ann Micheletti-Levari replaced David Coia in early August as a Republican committee candidate, but the first batch of absentee ballots was sent out with Coia's name. That error apparently did initiate from the Clerk's Office.
"It's an example of not following through and taking responsibility," Verno said.
McGettigan said the error "was limited to 70 voters, all those voters were notified in writing five weeks prior to the election that there would be a correction, and the Board of Elections was notified in writing of the issue. ... No one was (prevented) from being on the ballot or voting for their candidate."
- Verno was most critical about the issue of messenger ballots, which were the focus of the recent trial of Atlantic City Councilman Marty Small and 13 others for alleged voter fraud in the 2009 Democratic primary.
Verno recently sent a letter to the state attorney general asking that the office "oversee" the Clerk's Office's handling of vote-by-mail and messenger ballots. She cited a 2009 Press article in which McGettigan said his office received a total of 874 messenger applications and officials released 542 of the ballots to those who requested them. In comparison, Newark, with about 110,000 more registered voters than Atlantic City, released just 23 messenger ballots for its primary.
McGettigan countered that Verno, as a paid member of the Board of Elections in 2006, signed off on a certification of 268 out of 311 messenger ballots, an even higher percentage.
In New Jersey, both county clerk's offices and boards of election have a role in messenger ballots. The county clerk approves the initial applications for messenger ballots and the board of elections verifies signatures and certifies the ballots.
- Beyond ballot errors was a criticism leveled in 2010 by Republicans that the mail-in ballots were designed in one long column, with each candidate from each party listed one on top of the other, instead of being listed in two columns so a voter could simply vote straight down a party line. On the 2010 ballot, the Democratic candidates were listed first for all races, with the Republicans below.
While the Republicans issued a release claiming that the ballots were "strange" and unusual, McGettigan showed examples of absentee ballots from earlier years designed by previous clerks, including Republicans, that had the exact same design.
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