Defeated Union school board president vows to ask for recount of mail-in ballots

Photo by Rebecca Panico
From left, Jeff Monge and Vito Nufrio look on as the provisional ballots are about to be counted at the Union County Board of Elections in Elizabeth on Nov. 9.

UNION, NJ — Union Board of Education President Ronnie McDowell said he wants an official review of the mail-in ballots after he came up 29 votes short in his bid for re-election, losing to Sharon Higgins.

“I will be asking for a recount/recheck of the absentee ballots because I have my suspicions that those voters may have been unduly influenced by people ‘helping’ voters fill out their absentee ballots,” McDowell said in a Nov. 13 statement.

The tension was palpable on Nov. 9, as Union County Board of Elections officials counted the provisional ballots at their Elizabeth office for the tight school board race.

McDowell’s seat hung in the balance as he looked on during the count. Higgins had a slight lead of 24 votes for the last of three contested seats from ballots cast on Election Day, unofficial results showed Nov. 8.

McDowell said he was feeling “not too good,” as he walked downstairs in the county building to watch the count for eligible provisional ballots. His deficit grew once the eligible provisional ballots were tallied by a machine. Jeff Monge, a school board member whose seat was not up for election this year, hugged McDowell after the provisional results were printed and read aloud.

The Union BOE race was contentious, with two factions running candidates for three seats this year. Incumbents Vito Nufrio, Nancy Zuena and McDowell ran together and were supported by the advocacy group Parents for Change. Linda Richardson, Michelle Schulz and Higgins ran together the Children First Coalition ticket.

Higgins, who beat out McDowell with 3,398 votes, said in a Nov. 13 statement that she was “honored” and “excited” about winning a seat on the school board.

“I also want to acknowledge board President Ronnie McDowell and board Vice President Nancy Zuena and their contributions to the township of Union Public Schools,” Higgins said. “For the past three years, lots of their time were given and sacrifices were made, so I thank them for their service and wish them well for the future. I’m looking forward to working with the entire Board to ensure the interests and needs of all of Union’s children are met.”

Richardson and Nufrio were clear winners on Election Day. Official results from the Union County Clerk’s Office on Nov. 13 showed that Richardson led all candidates with 4,052 votes, with Nufrio next at 3,473.

Nufrio declined to comment after the results were read Nov. 8, and again when reached by email Nov. 13. But McDowell, in a statement, said Nufrio will be of “tremendous” value to students and staff.

“I am disappointed by the way the election turned out,” McDowell said. “I was looking forward to continuing to work improving our school district as we have been doing the past three years. I believe that board is losing two dedicated and experienced people in Nancy Zuena and myself.

“I am also thankful that Vito Nufrio will continue on the board because his experience and knowledge about everything educational is of tremendous value to our students and staff.”

Parents for Change — the Nufrio, McDowell and Zuena faction — said in a Facebook post on Nov. 10 that they hope the incoming board members will heal the divisions that became evident during the campaign.

“It is also our hope that the incoming candidates will find a way to mend the wounds that have been inflicted on our parents, children, staff and schools by the negative and false messaging distributed throughout the campaign,” the post said.

Steven Le, a former school board candidate who bowed out of the race and became the campaign manager for the Children First Coalition, said Nov. 9 that the election had been “emotionally and mentally exhausting.”

“I hope at the end of the day that, once the Board of Education reorganizes in January that everyone will find common ground, common purpose in ensuring that all the educational needs of our children are being met, regardless of who you’re affiliated with,” said Le, who had previously taken legal action against the BOE over the use of bond money.

Provisional ballots are defined by the state as paper ballots used at polling stations for those with eligibility issues. County election officials — rather than district polling station workers — examine the ballots for eligibility.

There are four circumstances in which a voter would receive a provisional ballot: if the voter’s name is not in the poll book or the signature is missing; if the voter moved outside the election district on record, but stayed in the county and didn’t inform the county commissioner of registration; if the voter is classified as an “Active Need ID” or “Inactive Needs ID” and arrived at the polls without any identification; or if the name in the poll book is marked with an “M” for mail-in ballot, but the voter claims they never applied for, received or returned a mail-in ballot. Mail-in and emergency ballots were previously counted, according to Dennis Kobitz, the Union County Board of Elections administrator, on Nov. 8.

About 36 provisional ballots were rejected for various reasons, Kobitz said. For example, one voter used a UPS box address instead of a home address on a ballot.

“Whoever calls for the recount, that’s who has to pay for that,” Kobitz said Nov. 13. “You have to file with the county court and then a judge will issue an order to have a recount.”

If the recount is approved, the person calling for it has to pay a small fee plus an additional $2 per district, Kobitz said.