Ramapo Students Face Barriers to Voting

Despite directives issued Saturday Nov. 3 from the office of the governor of N.J. that displaced voters may vote at any polling place in New Jersey by provisional ballot, miscommunication resulted in many Ramapo students being turned away from the polls or facing extreme difficulties in casting their ballots on Tuesday.

Ramapo College provided shuttles to the Temple Beth Haverim Shir Shalom polling place on Ramapo Valley Road, where many students were informed that they could not vote if they were not Mahwah residents. In addition to this misunderstanding, the polling site did not have enough provisional ballots to meet demand, like many others around the state.

Jonathan Marcus is on the Ramapo Board of Governors and the vice president of the Alumni Association, as well as a candidate for a town council seat in Mahwah. He came to campus to discuss question one on the ballot regarding a bond for higher education, and then heard of the confusion.

"I saw they were being turned away," Marcus said, "and that was wrong."

Students attempting to vote by provisional ballot were not eligible to vote for Marcus for Mahwah Town Council, but he felt their rights were being violated.

"I care about my students," he said. "I got on the phone to the County Clerk, mayor, anyone I could get ahold of." 

In the meantime, pizza was ordered for the crowd of waiting Ramapo students.

"The County Clerk will be here soon, bringing ballots and hopefully apologizing," Marcus announced. "A lawyer is also coming to ensure everyone's rights are protected."

Bergen County Clerk John Hogan came from his Hackensack office when he heard of the confusion, arriving around 2:45 p.m. with additional provisional ballots.

Most polling places have an election judge, an official responsible for ensuring elections are held fairly and to handle voter issues. Newton Parks was the election judge at the Temple Beth Haverim Shir Shalom polling place.

"The confusion occurred because we had an extremely high number of [voters voting with] provisional ballots," Parks said.

They initially had 50 ballots, and Parks asked the municipal clerk for 50 more when these ran out.

"The town clerk asked why we needed so many," Parks said.

According to Parks, the town clerk dropped off more before checking with the County Clerk's office. At that point, Parks was informed that non-Mahwah residents could not vote at this polling place.

"The decision was if people weren't from Mahwah, they shouldn't be filling out provisional ballots," Parks said. "We did about 70 before we were told to stop."

Municipal clerk Kathrine Coletta said "I'm sure that's correct," when told of Parks's account.

"I got my information from the county that I gave to my polling workers," Coletta said, and declined to comment further, referring questions to the Bergen County Clerk's office. 

County Clerk Hogan stated that he didn't know where she had gotten this mistaken information.

"It wasn't from me," he said. 

Neither Hogan, Coletta nor Parks could say how many students were turned away before the County Clerk arrived. Other students waited hours to cast their vote. There were 50 to 100 students in the lobby at any one time throughout the day. Marcus remained to encourage students to wait, and representatives from the Mahwah mayor's office were also there, assuring students that ballots were on the way.

Brandon Martin, Graduate Assistant for Civic Engagement, helped to orchestrate shuttles to the polling places after confirming with the county clerk the day before that students could vote by provisional ballot. Students didn't encounter the same problems at the polling places at the Mahwah firehouse or on Franklin Turnpike. 

"I know they had at least 30-40 provisional ballots there [at the Temple], they just weren't allowed to give them based on the instructions they were receiving to anyone who wasn't a Mahwah resident," Marten said.

Martin called the municipal clerk to no avail.  

"The Mahwah town clerk told me..we can't provide provisional ballots," Martin said, "and I had to explain to her what the County Clerk had told me the night before and what this website had instructed us to do that was apparently coming from the State of New Jersey."

The decision to withhold provisional ballots from students was not reversed until the County Clerk arrived. 

Freshman Jessica Dragone waited over an hour and a half.

"When I got here, I was told that they would bring [provisional] ballots in 10 minutes, then another 10 minutes, then they brought pizza," Dragone said.

"[I] waited almost an hour and a half," junior Katelynn Wintz said.  "It's my first time voting."

"[I think they] ran out of ballots because they were not expecting people to vote, [but people] displaced by the storm are still coming to vote," said Wintz.

After the ballots arrived the large crowd of students were seated at a table four at a time to fill out their provisional ballots. They could vote in the presidential and senate races and answer the special questions, but not in the congressional, school board or freeholder races. Parks made one Ramapo student uncomfortable when demonstrating how to vote.

"If you want to vote for Obama, x here," Parks said to junior Alexa Marques. "Although I don't know why you'd vote for Obama."

"It was kind of an awkward thing to say, because obviously he could see what I checked, we were sitting right in front of him," Marques said. "I didn't know what to say, but obviously it didn't change what I voted."

It was the first time voting for Marques, and she waited 45 minutes for her turn.

"It was kind of bizarre to be able to see [the ballots of] the three people sitting next to me," she said. "It wasn't personal or closed off at all."

According to New Jersey law, electioneering is not permitted within a polling place or within 100 feet of a polling place. Signs were posted in Temple Beth Haverim Shir Shalom to alert voters that even election materials like shirts, signs, buttons and pamphlets were prohibited, as well as verbal campaigning for a candidate or party.

County Clerk Hogan noted that their office did not expect such a high amount of provisional ballot voting.

Polling places had "triple what they normally had," he said, but they thought more displaced voters "would be voting electronically."

In order to vote electronically, voters who could not make it to their district had to submit an application for a mail-in ballot to their county clerk. Once the application was approved by the clerk, a ballot was sent by fax or email, and the voters then had to print it and fill it out before scanning and emailing or faxing it back to the clerk. The original deadline for voters to return their ballot was no later than 8 p.m. on Tuesday, but this was later extended to Friday at 8 p.m.

Martin said that when he spoke to the office of the County Clerk, they encouraged people to vote in person rather than the more complicated, multi-step electronic option. 

As the County Clerk was leaving the polling place, Marcus came after him to say that people were being told they needed identification to vote by provisional ballot.

"No they don't," Hogan said, returning.

Voters using a provisional ballot need the last four digits of their Social Security number or driver's license.

People "needed their ID to do that," Hogan said, "which led to miscommunication that they were needed to vote."

Robert Pantina, County Clerk Hogan's chief of staff, said that he couldn't speak to the conversation between Parks and the town clerk.

"The directive from the governor's office," he said, was that "voters can vote at any polling location by provisional ballot."

Pantina said his office would look into why Ramapo students were told they could not vote in Mahwah.

Hogan returned later with another 600 provisional ballots. Other polling places around the state also ran out of provisional ballots and had to be replenished.

Political Science Professor Jeremy Teigen was surprised that there was confusion among polling officials "given the clear statement by the Governor."

"People who manage precincts should err on the side of allowing people," Teigen said. "I'm surprised their first reaction was to turn students away."  

"Thank goodness no battleground states were hit by the hurricane," he said.

Several other students, including sophomore Mikey Dunn, were prevented from voting when they waited without success for the scheduled 7:00 p.m. shuttle. 

"We got an email saying that shuttles were going to be provided for students interested in voting," Dunn said. "Me and about 12 other students ending up waiting 20 minutes for a 7:00 p.m. shuttle that never showed up."

Similar problems occurred across the state and long lines discouraged some, but many students persevered to successfully participate in their first presidential election.