One side is calling it coincidence. The other thinks it’s more than that.
Ninety-eight percent of 4th Ward Council Candidate Tim Occhipinti’s paid campaign workers have already submitted their absentee ballots, according to a breakdown published first by a local blog in Hoboken and confirmed by multiple sources.
The comparison of Occhipinti’s ELEC report and vote-by-mail records released from the county show 79 out of 80 campaign workers have votes that are locked in already.
“It’s an anomaly, maybe,” said Occhipinti campaign spokesman David Cruz.
There shouldn’t be a stigma to the absentee ballots, he said. The workers have not been encouraged by the campaign to vote-by-mail, Cruz contends, any more than the campaign has encouraged the general public to do so.
Absentee totals are high so far, said Hudson County Board of Elections Clerk Michael Harper, and they could end up extraordinarily high.
Over 560 ballots have been sent out, he said, and roughly 390 have been returned. If another 150 ballots come back between now and Tuesday, Harper said, the totals would be extremely high.
Only 352 absentees were cast in the November 2007 4th Ward race between Zimmer and former Councilman Chris Campos, and that during a state senate and county executive race.
Occhipinti’s opponent, Michael Lenz, who represents the swing vote for Mayor Dawn Zimmer, thinks it may not just be a coincidence, according to campaign manager Sam Briggs.
“The Occhipinti campaign has hired 80 workers who live in the 4th Ward, and 79 of them have already voted by mail,” Briggs said by email. “This is either an extraordinary coincidence or an indication that these individuals may have been paid to Vote by Mail for Mr. Occhipinti.”
Cruz said many Occhipinti campaign workers signed affidavits swearing to actually work for the campaign, including handing out flyers, wearing t-shirts, and “talking up the candidate,” Cruz said.
“If somebody gets paid $40,” he said, “it’s very likely that’s what they get paid for. This was an employment contract essentially.”
“They’re employment with us is not contingent on vote-by-mail,” he said. “It’s not a requirement of them.”
Lenz and Occhipinti have both called for an Attorney General oversight of the election.
“Over 550 Vote by Mail ballots have been requested,” Briggs said, “about twice the number that voted by mail in the last 4th Ward election, and the possibility that people are being paid to vote is extremely concerning. We have contacted the Superintendent of Elections and the Attorney General’s office and reiterated our request that they conduct a full investigation of these and other matters to ensure an honest and fair election.”
“Mr. Occhipinti has previously requested Attorney General oversight as well, and we call on him to join with us in reiterating that request,” Briggs said. “The Lenz campaign will cooperate fully with any investigation and hopes the Occhipinti campaign will do so as well.”
The local blog that presented the analyzed data, Mile Square View, is also partnering with another local website and offering a $2,000 bounty for any absentee ballot fraud, “No questions asked.”
Cruz said the “poor and disenfranchised” are being targeted by the anti-absentee campaign.
“Why should they be further stigmatized because they vote by mail?” he said. The “elitists,” he said, like to claim, “They’re poor people, they must be getting paid to vote.”
“We’re helping out people who need help and they’re helping out us,” Cruz said.
One third-party observer said it’s illogical that campaigns would go out of their way to encourage vote-by-mail, because – even though it is convenient for the voters and encourages democratic participation – it has many more technical criterion that need to be met. So compared to machine voting, more things can go wrong with vote-by-mail, potentially disqualifying votes.