When the Mile Square Taxpayers Association, a group of developers and landlords long opposed to Hoboken’s tenant-friendly rent control codes, withdrew a legal challenge to the results of a November referendum last week, they conceded a victory to tenants who want to keep rent control in place. But it had another effect – it shined a light on a dubious election practice that has plagued Hoboken politics for years.
The court proceedings, in which MSTA attempted to argue that the Hudson County Board of Elections should not have invalidated around 300 vote-by-mail ballots, placed a microscope on those types of ballots, which have long been a source of controversy here.
For years, political organizations have influenced elections in advance by sending workers into senior citizen and low-income housing buildings to encourage residents to fill out absentee ballots. Seven years ago, the state made it easier for people to fill out ballots by mail by allowing people to do so without having to give a reason.
Over the past 20 years, several allegations of vote-by-mail-related fraud in Hoboken have been referred to law enforcement. Thus far, no charges have come as a result of those investigations, except for one indictment of a councilman in 1997 – allowing the practice that Mayor Dawn Zimmer called “vote harvesting” to continue largely unobstructed.
However, last week, a lawyer representing the Hoboken Fair Housing Association (HFHA) cross examined, in court, two campaign workers for Let the People Decide, a pro-MSTA political action committee which submitted several hundred vote-by-mail ballots in the November election. The line of questioning focused largely on the manner in which the workers gathered those vote-by-mail ballots, leading the judge in the case to demand that over 180 voters be called to testify as to the manner in which they voted.
After the judge made that demand, MSTA withdrew its challenge, saying it would not be fair to take away those voters’ rights to privacy.
The withdrawal was significant in several ways – for one, it effectively ended the MSTA’s three-year battle to find ways to update (and loosen) Hoboken’s 1973 rent control laws. The MSTA wanted to allow landlords to be able raise the rent to market rate whenever a tenant leaves, and was able to get measures on the ballot for the last two years to do so – but narrowly lost both times. (A city official was unclear last week about whether MSTA can legally sponsor the same referendum this November.)
“This court case had to do with rent control, but this was about much more than rent control.” – Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla
Michael Lenz, a former city councilman who claimed in 2010 that he lost a reelection bid because of alleged fraud related to vote-by-mail ballots, said on Thursday he believes the court case was far more important than simply settling a dispute over rent control.
“This has the potential to be the biggest thing in Hoboken politics in a long time,” he said. “The Board of Elections stepped up to the plate and disqualified a whole bunch of obviously questionable ballots, and when [MSTA] tried to get them back, the tenants showed everyone just how rotten the system has been for years.”
The intricacies of vote-by-mail
The term “vote-by-mail,” which was first introduced in New Jersey years ago to assist elderly and disabled voters unable to travel to the polls on Election Day, is somewhat misleading. Though one can mail in a ballot, they can also give it to an “assistor” or “bearer” who then delivers the ballot in person to a local board of elections. There’s little oversight of the way in which those bearers go around prior to Election Day gathering their ballots, resulting in allegations of corruption in Texas, New Jersey, and elsewhere. For instance, because there is no state official present when the ballots are signed and sealed, it’s possible that a bearer, especially one working for a specific campaign, could influence how the voter votes.
“This isn’t necessarily just a Hoboken thing,” said Renee Steinhagen, the election lawyer who has represented HFHA since 2012. “Especially regarding the signatures on these ballots, and whether they match. This is something that takes place nationwide.”
But in Hoboken, and other New Jersey communities, there’s a twist. Lenz, as well as others, such as Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla (an attorney who testified in last week’s court proceedings), have argued that voters who use the mail-in ballots are often paid to vote a certain way, and then listed on a candidate’s Election Law Enforcement Commission filings as a “campaign worker” on Election Day.
In fact, in 1997, the late Councilman Andrew Amato, who for eight years represented the city’s 4th Ward, was indicted for allegedly paying $40 to seven campaign workers to vote by absentee ballot in the county executive’s race. It was a rare case of a voter fraud investigation bearing fruit. However, the charge was eventually dropped.
Ironically, Amato was the candidate supported by the “reform” faction in town that same year to run for mayor against incumbent Anthony Russo. At the time, Amato told the media he was running to “stop all this corruption” and claimed the allegations against him were politically motivated. Russo won the election, but was sent to prison for bribery eight years later.
In 2007, a homeless man from Jersey City was caught trying to vote in a Hoboken council election under the name of a Hoboken resident who had moved. The homeless man told police he had been offered $10 to vote under the other person’s name. Details of the incident were well documented in local media and relayed to law enforcement agencies, who began an investigation – but to this day, no arrests or indictments have been made public. That matter was not related to vote-by-mail ballots, but is one of a series of possible Hoboken voter fraud incidents that have been investigated with no results.
Another voter fraud investigation occurred in 2010 – this one over vote-by-mail ballots – and again resulting in no charges thus far. Following a November election, Bhalla filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lenz against 4th Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti, his opponent in a special council election that November. Lenz claimed that out of 79 vote-by-mail ballots delivered by Occhipinti’s campaign to the county a month before the election, 77 allegedly happened to have been filled out by residents who were later paid $40 by the campaign to work on Election Day.
The remaining two campaign workers were allegedly paid a higher sum, said Bhalla. Their names were Dio Braxton and Lizaida Camis – the same two workers who were cross examined in court last week about their work during the rent control election.
In Occhipinti’s post-Election Day filings, the numbers were even more startling: 560 workers were paid for their services on Election Day, close to half of the total number of total votes Occhipinti received in that 4th Ward election. In total, Occhipinti’s campaign reports showed that he spent $22,000 on campaign workers, most of whom were paid the standard $40.
The Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office told the Reporter in December of 2010 that it was going to refer the investigation to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office. Yet, the attorney general has never released any results of its investigation, and a media representative did not return a request for comment by press time Friday.
Occhipinti, for his part, denied any wrongdoing this past November when he was challenging Mayor Dawn Zimmer for re-election, and has denied wrongdoing before.
Frank Raia, a frequent candidate in Hoboken politics and a wealthy local real estate developer, supported Occhipinti in 2013, and is said to be a key player in the aforementioned Let the People Decide political action committee that worked with the MSTA. When reached by phone on Wednesday, Raia declined to comment.
On its mandatory state election financing report filed on Nov. 2, 2012, Let the People Decide listed aggregate donations from MSTA totaling $32,500 for that election cycle. Due to technical difficulties on the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission’s website, the 2013 reports were not available last week. The address given for Let the People Decide, the committee that paid hundreds of campaign workers including Braxton and Camis, was the same building as Raia’s mailing address.
Ron Simoncini, a spokesman for MSTA, estimated on Friday that his organization has donated over $70,000 to Let the People Decide since 2011. Simoncini said that Let the People Decide has the resources to run effective “get out the vote” drives in the 4th and 5th Wards, where he had trouble reaching voters. (The 4th Ward contains much of the city’s low-income housing.)
Simoncini went on to say that he believes Let the People Decide’s specific strategy of hiring large amounts of campaign workers (as with Occhipinti’s strategy in 2010) benefits his organization’s cause.
“They hire lots of campaign workers, and when you hire campaign workers, the presumption is that they’re going to vote for you,” he said.
Simoncini also claimed that he knew nothing about Let the People Decide’s alleged vote harvesting.
“Nothing in my mind ever made me think that it’s anything more than a ‘get out the vote’ organization,” he said.
Braxton and Camis
Neither Braxton nor Camis could be reached by phone for comment last week. But Cheryl Fallick, a member of the HFHA, said their testimony did not stand up under cross examination.
“It was clear to me that MSTA’s attorney was trying to get them to testify that all the ballots they collected had been filled out in secret, while [Steinhagen] questioned them in a way that showed the judge there were simply too many improprieties to automatically accept those votes,” she said.
According to witnesses in the courtroom, Camis and Braxton discussed filling out the outer envelope for voters, meeting voters in cars and elsewhere, and placing the ballots inside the envelopes, meaning that the ballots were unsealed when they changed hands.
“There were simply too many changes of custody issues that emerged during their testimony for the judge,” said Steinhagen last week. “The process they described was not innocuous, and it put the secrecy and the integrity of all the vote-by-mail ballots at risk.”
Steinhagen, who focuses on voter’s rights issues at the New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center, said she is pursuing the possibility of new legislation surrounding vote-by-mail. She said on Wednesday that she has already scheduled a meeting with the state’s Office of Legislative Affairs to discuss new laws that would ban campaign workers from serving as ballot bearers, limit the type of voter who may receive assistance to the disabled, and limit the number of ballots a bearer can submit in a given election to 10.
MSTA: Voters shouldn’t be on trial
The rent control referendum, which appeared on the ballot in 2013 for the second consecutive year, asked whether the city should take apartments in buildings with four or fewer units off of rent control once a current tenant moves out. After the decontrol, rent control would again apply to the new market-rate rent in a building with five or more units. In a building with four or fewer units, the rents would thereafter be exempt from rent control. Thus, the measure would not apply to current tenants, but would still allow landlords to have the hope of eventually bringing rents up to market rate when existing tenants left.
It was far from the first time that Hoboken’s Rent Control Ordinance, initially passed by the City Council in 1973, has been the subject of a struggle over proposed updates. The law keeps rent increases in buildings constructed before 1987 to a few percent each year, based on government economic indicators.
There are exceptions; for instance, landlords can apply to the city to raise the rent higher for economic hardship or if they undertake capital improvements. Some believe that the laws are antiquated, while others say they allow the working class to remain in an exceedingly popular town where wealthy new residents pay $3,000 per month or more to rent units.
The MSTA put their rent decontrol measure on the ballot in 2012. It was defeated by fewer than 100 votes, but the MSTA successfully had the result struck down in court, arguing that voters displaced by Hurricane Sandy did not get to vote on it when permitted to cast ballots out of town on Election Day.
So the matter proceeded to a new election this past November, with tenant activists and the MSTA ardently arguing their case to the public. The referendum was defeated by 122 votes, allowing rent control to stand. The MSTA sued again.
Last week, Simoncini said that the group withdrew the new suit because it would be too hard to put 180 voters on the stand.
“This is an incredible moment of bias,” he said. “None of these voters was under trial – the decision by the County Board of Elections [to disqualify 300 votes-by-mail] was. We feel that this ruling is a complete miscarriage of justice, especially in that it was overtly won through uncorroborated testimony by politically-motivated witnesses.”
Simoncini, who noted that several of the voters used the vote-by-mail system because they were sick or elderly, argued that the judge’s requirement violated a voter’s right to privacy.
“Under the court’s ruling, each of more than 180 voters would have had to appear in court, violating their right to anonymously vote while suffering inconvenience and loss of work time. Many of these voters voted by mail because they are not English speaking and they do not feel comfortable visiting the polls,” he said.
The county Board of Elections did not conclude that there were illegalities when it rejected the 300 ballots, but cited suspicious issues such as signatures that did not match.
Steinhagen disagreed with Simoncini’s assertions, noting that the judge was not asking voters to reveal how they voted on the referendum, simply the process by which they cast their vote.
Fallick said that she felt the decision by Steinhagen to question Braxton and Camis thrust Hoboken’s vote-by-mail issues into the open, giving the judge no choice but to require each voter’s testimony.
“We feel very grateful to [Steinhagen] for her efforts on behalf of HFHA and all Hoboken voters to meet the city’s voter fraud problem head on in an effort to protect our second election victory in as many years,” she said.
Zimmer, who supported the tenants’ side on the referendum and had called for an independent investigation into its results, weighed in on Thursday.
“Vote-by-mail is intended to be a convenience for voters, but in Hoboken it has become a vehicle for unscrupulous campaigns to harvest votes from paid ‘workers’ who often do no work other than to vote,” she said. “The troubling testimony in this case underscores both the excellent job done by the Board of Elections in attempting to limit abuse, and the desperate need for reforms that eliminate the involvement of campaigns in the collection and delivery of vote-by-mail ballots.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org