Under lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of Paterson residents have begun casting their votes via mail-in ballots in six City Council races.
No one knows what will happen in the first ever election conducted solely through vote-by-mail ballots.
“No one was prepared for this type of an election,” said Omar Rodriguez, a political strategist, who managed former mayor Jose “Joey” Torres’ last mayoral campaign.
Many of the candidates in the six races had to cancel campaign kick-offs and fundraisers.
Some candidates had to tap into their own pockets to fund their campaigns. Incumbent Ruby Cotton loaned $10,000 to her campaign. Newcomer Sharrieff Bugg raised $4,242, half of the funds came from his own pocket.
“Everything is up in the air. The issue I see with the campaigns is they have to decide between politics and life. Are you willing to expose your volunteers? Are you willing to expose yourself to death because you want to get a vote?” said Pedro Rodriguez, former mayoral candidate, who received the most vote-by mail ballots in 2018.
Before the virus struck, some campaigns built up big pools of volunteers to knock on doors. Volunteers would knock on doors of people who had received mail-in ballots to encourage them to vote for their candidate to secure an edge. That was before governor Phil Murphy decided to make it a solely vote-by-mail election.
Not everyone has gotten the message, said Omar Rodriguez. “They are thinking they’ll get the mail-in and the polling stations will be open,” he said referring to Latino voters. “They’ll find the doors closed.”
Mail-in ballots will contain an instructional sheet to help voters fill them out.
“I think we’re putting enough stuff on social media to educate voters,” said Ernest Rucker, who has worked on various campaigns over the decades. He has criticized mail-in voting, tying it with voter fraud, over the past months.
Rucker said the virus will likely discourage conduct such as getting voters to show up to an office to fill out their ballots. He slammed council president Maritza Davila, who is backing a slate of candidates, for putting out a flier that encourages voters to call a phone number for assistance with mail-in ballots.
Rucker said voters should call the municipal clerk, the county clerk, or the board of elections for assistance.
“This could be a large turnout,” said Rucker. Turnout was 19-percent in ward elections in 2016. Just 14,701 out of 77,169 registered voters cast ballots in that election.
A dozen political observers interviewed for this story could not agree on whether turnout will be higher or lower than four years ago.
2nd and 3rd Wards will see bigger turnouts, said Omar Rodriguez. He said the 2nd and 3rd Wards have informed voters who will find it easier to vote using mail-in ballots. One person from a house of four people may have gone to the polling site to vote in the past, he said. “You will see all of the votes coming out of that house.”
Under lockdown, a family will likely discuss the candidates and all members might pick the same candidate, he said. “It’s become a family decision,” he said.
Candidates have had a tough time getting their message out to voters. No debates have been held because of the virus.
“The game has changed a lot. Now, it’s more of a digital campaign,” said challenger Ramon Joaquin. “Use the technology that’s available to you and hope for the best.”
Joaquin has been aggressively using his Facebook to reach voters. Other candidates have been doing the same.
Incumbent Luis Velez has been using social media as well. He has also dropped off hundreds of masks at senior apartment buildings in the 5th Ward to build good will that, he hopes, translates to votes.
“I’m trying to reach the people I know that can reach family members that live in the 1st Ward,” said challenger Nakima Redmon. She has been reaching them through phone and social media. A key piece of her campaign, before the virus, had been to attend City Council meetings, deliver a brief speech, to tell people about her candidacy. Council meetings are now done through video conference. “It’s a different race. It’s going to be interesting when May 12th comes.”
The election is scheduled for May 12, but voting will be over long before that date.
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