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.
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“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.”
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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.