COURT HOUSE – Cape May County Clerk Rita Fulginiti posted the official results of the July 7 primary July 28, weeks after the vote (https://bit.ly/2O9EwA4). She cited the tremendous amount of labor involved in a vote-by-mail election for the delay.
“The tally takes much longer,” she said.
That included about 2,300 provisional ballots in a county that typically handles a fraction of that number. Those who voted in person at the reduced number of polling stations received a provisional ballot in the primary.
This year’s primary election was delayed more than a month, from June 2. In May, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order declaring that the vote would take place primarily by mail, with a limited number of polling places available, in response to the ongoing pandemic.
The method seemed to increase participation, but, according to Fulginiti, also brought problems, including delay in the final tally and concern from some voters.
“I was one of eight clerks who met with the governor’s office and the secretary of state urging in November that voters have the option of voting on a machine in a polling place,” she said, describing a vote primarily by mail as troublesome.
With an exceptionally contentious presidential race coming in November, Fulginiti expects a high turnout.
“We can’t have any problems,” she said.
The issue has been heating up around the nation, with President Donald Trump repeatedly alleging that mail-in ballots lead to increased incidence of voter fraud. Several national news organizations challenged the assertion, and a June report from The Brookings Institution, a centrist, non-partisan research group, argued there is no evidence mail-in ballots increase voter fraud (https://brook.gs/2P9KbH9).
“I understand what the issues are and the potential of fraud is there. In Cape May County, we managed an election fairly and securely, but there are issues,” Fulginiti said. For instance, she cited ballots mailed automatically to all registered voters. If the voting lists are not up-to-date, a ballot could be sent to someone who died or moved, presenting an opportunity for the receiver to post a fraudulent ballot.
Fulginiti was interviewed for this story July 29, the day before Trump suggested delaying the election, citing potential fraud.
Republicans and Democrats dismissed the idea, saying the nation has held national elections on time through pandemics, world wars, civil war, and other catastrophes. Constitutional experts say the president has no authority to reschedule the election, and from the national reaction, it did not sound likely that Congress would be on board.
The president wrote on Twitter: “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Brendan Sciarra, recently reelected as Cape May County’s Democratic chairman. He said he would like to see a hybrid, under which registered voters could mail in their ballots, but could also go to the polls.
“I prefer a combination of both, if it can be done safely and securely,” he said. That would mean new sanitation procedures for voting booths and potential limits to the number of people allowed in a polling station at one time.
Sciarra is also a candidate in this election, running for freeholder with Liz Casey against Republican incumbents Will Morey and Jeffrey Pierson. Fulginiti is also on the ballot as a Republican seeking reelection. Democrats have not nominated a candidate to challenge her.
However the vote proceeds, Sciarra said the state will need to present guidance for the November election and give clerks extensive time to prepare. It will also mean substantial organization in advance from the clerk's office.
“I think our clerk does a great job,” he said.
No one from Murphy’s office responded to a request for comment on this story, or to answer questions on the criteria to be used to determine how the general election vote will proceed. In his coronavirus briefing July 29, Murphy said he would likely have a decision on in-person voting for the November election by mid-August.
“… We continue to see the election on July 7 as largely if not overwhelmingly successful, although we are still doing our after-action work, as you can imagine, and we want to get this right,” Murphy said at the briefing in response to a question from a reporter.
In the primary, there were 23 places where ballots could be dropped off, spread among the 16 municipalities in the county, Fulginiti said. With ballots automatically sent to every registered voter, there were many voters who never before participated in a primary election, she said. Participation was over 30% of registered voters.
Rather than sending mail-in ballots out automatically, Fulginiti wants to see them sent only to voters who request an absentee ballot.
“If they apply, we know where it’s going, we know it’s coming. That’s safe and secure,” she said.
She pointed to the large number of people who opted to drop their ballot off at one of the designated polling places instead of sending them through the mail, saying they likely felt more secure that way.
There were few races in the primary, including a three-way race for the Republican nomination for Stone Harbor Borough Council. Reese Moore and Robin Lynn Casper edged out Joselyn Rich in that race. There were also races for some members of their party’s committees, with more challenges among the Democrats, but with some races for either party.
The contested races were settled since soon after the vote, with winners reported through the unofficial results. That includes a much-watched race for the Democratic nomination to take on former Democrat Jeff Van Drew, whose high-profile switch to the Republican Party as a freshman congressman made national news and led to a Cape May County visit from Trump.
Amy Kennedy clinched the nomination by a comfortable margin, setting the stage for a hot race for the sprawling South Jersey district that is usually remarkably stable, with just four representatives over the last 50 years.
Kennedy, the wife of Patrick Kennedy, a former Rhode Island congressman and youngest child of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, of Massachusetts, drew 4,863 votes in the primary. Brigid Callahan Harrison, her next closest rival, won 2,635 votes, with Will Cunningham taking 895 votes.
Van Drew also faced a primary challenge from Robert Patterson, who billed himself as the real conservative in the race. Van Drew handily took the nomination with close to 85% of the vote, coming in with 10,345 votes to 1,798.
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