UNION COUNTY — The Union County Freeholder Board put the kibosh on funding the special general election Oct. 16 until someone at the state level decides if taxpayers will have to foot the entire bill or the county will be getting back any of the $850,000 tab.
Although there has been considerable political controversy throughout the state regarding the need for a special election to fill the senate seat vacated when Frank Lautenberg died, there also has been rumblings about the financial impact this would have on taxpayers.
The winner of the special election will serve the remainder of Lautenberg’s term with the next election for this seat being held at its normal time in November 2014.
At the June 13 board meeting, freeholder Mohammed Jalloh said the freeholders decided they needed more information before laying out the $850,000 for the special election, but agreed to fund the special primary Aug. 13.
“We don’t even know if we are going to get back any of this $850,000,” he said, in an interview with LocalSource late last week.
Despite this decision, Jalloh made it clear the special election was a political decision from the governor.
“I don’t want to disenfranchise voters. We would never do that,” the freeholder said, adding this was a lot of money to approve for an election that was not necessary.
Jalloh also said the board questioned the need for a special election when a general election loomed just three weeks later, but they did not completely rule out paying for it.
The county freeholder board is not the only one questioning the timing and cost of the October special election. Throughout the state, Democrats have objected to the date, citing the possibility of voter suppression, the cost, and strain on election officials to turnaround another election in three weeks as serious concerns.
Holding the special election in October also rules out Newark Mayor and Democratic Senate candidate Corey Booker from sharing the same ballot as Gov. Chris Christie in November. The governor is seeking a second term in the November election, but Republicans are also concerned about the fact that all 120 legislative seats are up. This means that control of the state legislature is up for grabs and that is critical to both parties if they want any of their initiatives approved.
Christie has maintained the issues facing the U.S. Senate are too critically important, the decisions too vital, not to have an elected representative in Washington making these decisions for New Jersey. The governor also did not care about the cost and said so at press conferences when the announcement was made.
“I don’t know what the cost is and I quite frankly don’t care,” he said recently, adding that all people in the state would benefit from the special election. While Christie acknowledged that he could have scheduled the special election at the same time as the Nov. 5 general election, he insisted he was acting as quickly as possible so voter voices could be heard.
“I will not permit the insiders and a few party elites to determine who the nominee of the Republican party and the Democratic party will be,” he said at a recent news conference when the issue came up. Freeholder Christopher Hudak saw things differently.
“The governor has arbitrarily set an election date to benefit himself and his party. He has put that above the ability of the New Jersey voters to have a good and fair process,” he said, explaining the board does not object to the August special primary because it will allow voter to designate party nominees. But when it came to the special election, that raised his ire.
“This has placed a burden on counties and municipalities for what really amounts to a temper tantrum of ‘I want what I want when I want it,’ and that is unfair,” Hudak added.
However, the governor is within his legal right to hold the special election and a state superior court upheld that recently when they ruled he was within his power to set the date for the special election 20 days before the general election.
Jalloh, on the other hand, had a more serious concern.
“This is a financial hardship for us,” he said, pointing out that while the county has to pay more than $850,000 for both the Oct, 16 election and special primary in August, the cost to taxpayers throughout the state is estimated at around $24 million.
“That is $1.7 million for our county alone for these two elections,” the freeholder added, noting this was the reason the board held off on funding the Oct. 16 election. But he was not ruling out a change of heart later.
“At this point we don’t know if we will or not, but we are hoping the governor will reconsider his decision,” said Jalloh, mentioning that the last time the county had to pay for a special election was in 2008 when voters had to decide if they wanted Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton on the ballot for president.
“It took seven months for us to get reimbursed for that special election,” he added, noting that without some assurance from the governor that the county would be getting back even half the cost, the board could not, in good faith, expend that amount of money.
Hudak, though, was not as optimistic about the county getting a fast turnaround on taxpayer dollars expended on the special election.
“I’m not holding my breath for a speedy reimbursement or an assurance we will even get one,” the freeholder said.
“Yesterday just wasn’t the day to do that,” Jalloh said the day after the board decided not to approve the $850,000 for the Oct. 16 special election.
“Quite frankly the governor has not articulated why it has to be a special election when this senate seat could be put on the Nov. 5 ballot,” Jalloh said.
“This is blindsiding us after catching us completely off guard,” the freeholder added, bringing up how difficult it would be for the county board of election personnel to hold the election just three weeks after the special election.
No one is more aware of this than Dennis Kobitz, the Administrator for the Union County Board of Elections, who also is President of the New Jersey Association of Election Officers. Kobitz has been in touch with board of election officials in other counties throughout the state and he said they all are echoing his concerns.
“The problem is multi-faceted,” Kobitz explained Friday in an interview, pointing to not only the difficulty of getting 427 election machines programmed in the three weeks between the two elections, but also the legal complexities involved with any election.
“The machines are automatically impounded for 15 days after an election in case there is a challenge,” he said, adding that he would have to obtain a court order to release the machines so they can be recalibrated for the general election Nov. 5. That alone presents the possibility of a major problem for election officials in the state.
“Because there is only three weeks between elections, it is a huge task getting these machines programmed for the general election,” Kobitz said, adding that this is a monumental task for his staff of six.
“There are a lot of people on the ballot in November,” he said, pointing out that not only is there a large number of candidates in many towns, but the fact board of education candidates are also on the ballot.
Kobitz said towns like Hillside have races for mayor, council, school board, freeholder, state legislative seats and the governor race.
“We have to upload all of these and check each button on all 427 machines to make sure they are all working prior to the election,” he said, pointing out that in Elizabeth alone there are 14 people running in the school board election. And then there is the problem of ensuring he has enough staff aboard to get the job done.
“I have six people certified now, but some counties, like Somerset, have only two,” Kobitz said, adding “this never, ever, has happened before.”
“If the Oct. 16 senate race election is close and anyone asks for a recount, the machines would not be ready for the Nov. 5 election,” he said, explaining the only solution if this should occur would be to go to paper ballots.
“The state is concerned, too,” Kobitz said, mentioning that as the president of the NJAEO he was asked to gather the comments of election officials throughout the state together on this matter.
“I’m doing that now, but I don’t understand why the governor is doing this,” the election official added, but pointed out that regardless what happens, “we will get the job done, we always do.”
According to National Journal.com, an online political news source, estimates for the cost of the special election for New Jersey taxpayers does not come cheap.
For example, it will cost $4 to $5 million just for poll worker salaries for each election throughout the state. This number is based on the 6,542 polling places for 2013, the minimum number of workers, four per polling place, and the $200 fee paid to each. Then there is another $6.5 million needed for ballot printing and postage, processing, legal advertising, polling place rental and voting machine delivery per each special election. When all tallied up, the final number is around $23.8 million statewide for the August primary and October special election.