On the morning of Saturday, Oct. 23, poll sites across Hudson County opened their doors for the first day of early voting. With new equipment and staff on hand, they were ready to handle the new early voting period in the state.
One person, however, had something else to say about the process.
On that morning, at the Pershing Field Community Center in Jersey City, a lady named Adela Rohena entered the center and began asking poll workers technical questions about the voting process. She asked about the political affiliations of those working, but then she wanted to ask other questions of the workers.
At that point, the workers asked her to leave, as she was not allowed to watch the process. Michael Harper, the clerk of the Hudson County Board of Elections, came over to Pershing Field to answer her questions. But the conversation reached such a pitch, according to Harper, that he told Rohena if she wouldn’t leave, they would call the sheriff’s office. She chose to leave.
But on Nov. 3, the day after Election Day, while ballots were still being counted for a very close governor’s race, Rohena, accompanied by Lennart “Erik-Anders” Nilsson, tried to enter the Hudson County Plaza, where the votes were being processed. Brandishing signs reading “Stop The Steal,” they were immediately ordered by a building security officer to stay out, and the sheriff’s office was contacted.
Harper, hearing the commotion, offered to answer their questions and ushered the duo outside the building entrance. But it soon turned into a heated conversation that lasted several minutes. “You’re not allowed with your signs and your nonsense in here,” said Harper in an exchange that was recorded by a Hudson Reporter staff writer. “Most of what you say is nonsense.”
Rohena made a series of claims about the election process, claims that election officials say are untrue.
At moments the exchange became personal, with Rohena accusing Harper of smelling like alcohol, and Harper later shrugging off a complaint Rohena made about a job loss she suffered with the crack, “You’re obviously incapable of all but the simplest jobs.”
Rohena and Nilsson are part of a group they call “Transparency in U.S.A. Elections,” with the announced goal of asking for more transparency in the election process.
But the group has made unauthorized efforts throughout the recent voting period to audit the process for themselves, and have made claims about the election process that have been disputed by election officials, according to an investigation by the Hudson Reporter.
The group’s rhetoric echoes claims about election integrity by former President Donald Trump and his supporters, claims that have been either disputed or disproven by officials across the nation.
Who is “Transparency in U.S.A. Elections?”
The group, “Transparency in U.S.A. Elections,” claims that they seek to “maintaining electoral integrity, preserving our constitutional rights,” amongst other goals.
Whether Transparency in U.S.A. Elections is a local homegrown organization, or affiliated with a broader election integrity effort, is unclear. But two of their known members have had prior political history.
Adela Rohena was a Republican candidate in Hudson County, with her most recent attempt at public office being in 2019 when she ran for the Hudson County Sheriff. But her campaign took a hit after she made homphobic remarks during a Jersey City Board of Education meeting in 2019. The Hudson County GOP dropped their endorsement of her afterwards, and she eventually lost the election to Democratic incumbent Frank Schillari.
Lennart “Erik-Anders” Nilsson is an actor and director, and was the founder of the Jersey City Peace Movement. He was active as a peace activist, and also made runs for the Jersey City Council in the past.
The group listed other members who are part of their group, but have not disclosed their full names, in which they claim is because of attacks and threats on their members.
Statements made by the group suggest that they are opposed to Gov. Phil Murphy, who they accused, without evidence, of manipulating the vote, and calling the governor’s COVID-19 mandates “draconian.”
Attempts at “transparency”
The group’s attempt at getting more transparency out of the election process was rebuked by election officials, who said that they were not allowed to watch the process themselves and have debunked claims that they’ve made.
During the first encounter on Oct. 23 at Pershing Field, Rohena tried to ask about how many Democrats and Republicans worked at the polling station. Election officials said that they work to ensure that there’s an equal number of people from either party working at the polls.
“At that point, they asked her if she would leave because she wasn’t here to do any business related to voting,” said Ralph Santiago, a super poll worker who was there that day. “With the elections, your business here is to come in to vote, and then leave. They don’t really want anyone sticking around for any amount of time.”
Rohena had also asked why there were nine days of early voting, which was because of a new voting rights law that was signed earlier this year.
Harper said that at that encounter, he did his best to answer Rohena’s questions, but then said that she was very difficult to deal with.
“I did my best to answer every question she asked,” said Harper. “But the questions were more like phrases. ‘How could you do this? How could you have more days to vote?’ And my answer was it was a law passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor. That’s when they got like, ‘that’s because [Governor] Murphy wants to steal the election with COVID’.”
The other encounter between Rohena and Harper at Hudson County Plaza on the day after Election Day contained even more claims from Rohena, claims that have all been debunked by officials.
One instance was when Rohena claimed that ballot drop off boxes were still accepting ballots after the polls closed. That has been debunked, with officials saying that the boxes were locked from accepting any other ballots as soon as the polls closed.
Nilsson also made claims that the barcode that was handed to voters during early voting meant that they knew who people voted for. That has also been debunked – as anyone registered in Hudson County could go to any early voting station in the county, the barcode was meant to make sure each resident gets their correct ballot.
Ultimately, both encounters ended with the two groups walking away with no police intervention required.
E. Junior Maldonado, the Hudson County Clerk, said that they can allow people to oversee the election process if they speak to him, Harper, or any other election officials. But attempting force one’s way into the process is not allowed.
“Going there protesting, making up stuff, is not going to get you access,” said Maldonado. “Because saying everything is wrong doesn’t make it wrong.”
The future of such actions
Lindsey Cormack, an assistant professor of Political Science at Stevens Institute of Technology, said that the encounter at Hudson County Plaza is an extension of the “Stop The Steal” narrative that has been perpetrated nationwide.
“I think that the scary thing when you think about it is that it was a non-violent altercation that just happened there,” said Cormack. “But you can imagine it being worse.”
“We’re not going to be guided by what people are making up to make it seem like we’re not doing the job correctly,” said Maldonado.
Harper said that while he welcomes any rational conversation about the election process, he has reassured amidst the deluge of claims that the process is fair and accurate.
“We’re going to continue to obey those state laws and implement the process that does everything you can to make sure every legal vote is counted and counted honestly,” said Harper.