PATERSON – The campaign headquarters of sitting Paterson ward 2 Councilman Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman sit directly across from the headquarters of one of his challengers: Eddie Gonzalez. Less than a block down the street, challenger Shahin Khalique has also set up his headquarters. Because of the proximity of the three offices, the corner of Union and Preakness Avenues has become the defacto ground zero for Paterson’s ward 2 election. Even supporters for former councilman Aslon Goow—whose headquarters are on Chamberlain St.—could be seen walking near those with t-shirts for the other candidates as they all make a final push until the polls close.
Though there were mere hours until the close of the polls, council hopeful Gonzalez was not out pounding the pavement this afternoon like his three rivals for the council seat. Instead, Gonzalez was at the courthouse looking for Superior Court Judge Joseph Portelli.
When PolitickerNJ briefly spoke with Gonzalez, he was at the courthouse in order to inquire about rumors that a stack of vote by mail ballots were delivered to the clerk this morning. According to a staffer in his campaign headquarters, “about 400” new vote by mails were delivered and then subsequently tossed this morning because the deadline for vote by mail ballots to be delivered was Monday. Those claims are unconfirmed. Over 1,600 absentee ballots were received before the deadline in the ward 2 race.
The influx of mail ballots has been under scrutiny since April when candidates began questioning the high numbers of absentee ballots being issued for the second ward. Goow, Aktharuzzaman and Gonzalez have all accused Khalique of manipulating the vote by mail process and pressuring voters to cast votes in his name. The Passaic County Superintendent of Elections is currently investigating the matter.
Standing outside of his campaign headquarters on Tuesday afternoon, Akhtaruzzaman restated his allegations that Khalique had manipulated the balloting process. Both Khalique and Akhtaruzzaman are members of the second ward’s booming Bengali community.
“What happens is that [Khalique] has been collecting applications for almost a year,” Akhtaruzzaman said. “Last summer he offered school bags and they didn’t even know what they were signing. A lot of people don’t know that that is a mail in ballot application, especially people in the Bengali community who he offered gifts. Our campaign didn’t know.”
According to Akhtaruzzaman, he noticed the issue when longtime supporters had suddenly cast absentee votes for Khalique instead.
“As soon as I saw the report, it was ‘Why did this happen? Who did it?” Akhtaruzzaman said. When Akhtaruzzaman won his last election, his win was carried by ward 2’s Bengali residents.
Staffers at Gonzalez campaign headquarters said that, despite being competitors, Gonzalez and Akhtaruzzaman had been cooperating with one another in order to keep pressure on the superintendent of elections to continue investigating the matter regardless of the results of the election.
For Aslon Goow, the scrutiny is critical and possible challenges would likely come after the county investigation.
“I think the system is being abused,” Goow told PolitickerNJ. “You can’t have 1,000 people sign their name and expect it to go to the right place.”
According to Khalique, the situation with the mail in ballots in ward 2 is simply a byproduct of his lengthy campaign and rumors of foul play are being created by his opponents.
“In the state of New Jersey you can vote two ways: by mail or on the day of the election,” Khalique told PolitickerNJ from the inside of his campaign headquarters. “We started our process about a year ago. Some of the voters choose to vote by mail. [My competitors] just started like a month ago and I have been campaigning for a year.”
Councilwoman Maritza Davila is an ardent Khalique supporter. She was also at his campaign headquarters in the hours leading up to the polls closing.
“Anyone can allege anything, Prove it,” Davila said. “It is just unfortunate that people have to use those types of tactics to scare individuals and to deter.”
According to Davila, the influx of mail in ballots is attributable to the long campaign and the increased support Khalique has generated.
“When the campaign went out there and registered new voters, we encountered a lot of people telling us that, ‘I’m not registered to vote because I don’t go out to vote. I am too busy.’ And we told them they had an option that if they wanted to receive their ballot at home all they had to do was fill out the application. People decided that is what they wanted to do,” Davila said. “We have registered a lot of new people in the second ward.”
Because of the highly scrutinized situation with mail in ballots in ward 2, it is likely that Khalique will face a challenge if pronounced the victor.
Paterson residents have until 8 p.m. to cast their ballots.