OCEAN COUNTY – An emergent lawsuit filed this week seeks to bar the Ocean County Democratic Committee from using “remote voting” procedures at its upcoming Reorganization Meeting to elect officers.
“I would respectfully submit that the Chairman’s unilateral attempt to change the voting procedure in which he, himself, is a candidate, twelve days before the election is set to take place, is a desperate and unlawful attempt to override the voices of the County Committee, who have already voted on this issue,” said Terrance Turnbach, a former Toms River Councilman who is seeking to unseat Wyatt Earp from his leadership role in the organization.
“This is a democracy, not a dictatorship, and the Chairman is unlawfully ignoring the decision of the Committee he has sworn to represent,” Turnbach continued. “All we are seeking is a fair election, where members of the County Committee come to vote on the next Chairperson of the Ocean County Democratic party.”
Two local municipal democratic heads joined Turnbach as plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Earp and the Ocean County Democratic Committee. Patricia Kennedy is the founding member and president of the Waretown Democratic Club; Charles Cunliffe serves as Barnegat Democratic Municipal Chair.
According to the legal papers submitted to the court, Ocean County Democratic Committee members already rejected vote by mail as an alternative to in-person voting to select officers.
“The vote by mail option brought to the table was not the same as the one conducted by the Board of Elections,” explained Tara Kownacki, who is running for Vice-Chair of the Committee on Turnbach’s ticket. “If it were, we would not have objected to it.”
New Jersey Election Laws contain specific guidelines regarding reorganizational meetings held after the primary election. Additionally, county political committees are expected to follow bylaws adopted and in force at the time of their meetings.
The Ocean County Democratic Committee’s Bylaws include rules regarding the election of officers, specifically prohibiting proxy voting except for meetings concerning a replacement of a candidate on the ballot.
Plaintiffs allege Earp’s introduction of the bylaw amendment to allow alternative means to in-person voting served as his acknowledgment and recognition of the Ocean County Democratic Committee’s historical customary practice to hold in-person voting for the election of officers. The vote permitting mail-in ballots failed in March of this year.
Many committee members voted in after the recent primary election expressed their surprise that the remote option was made available. Remote voting registration was sent to members on Tuesday afternoon, the day before the lawsuit against Earp and the Committee was filed in Superior Court.
“One of the problems I have with the remote voting is the technology itself,” said Cunliffe, a former Lakewood mayor. “It was never introduced to the membership, and no tests were done to show us how it works. It’s a matter of due diligence.”
“The bylaws currently do not allow any type of remote electronic voting,” Cunliffe continued. “If they (leadership) wanted to roll it out, they need to follow the bylaws, which are straightforward. Something like this requires an amendment to make the change with a majority greater than two-thirds agreeing to it.”
Cunliffe added that he found the unilateral and arbitrary move by the party’s leadership to be inappropriate. He said he wasn’t against making it easier for people to vote but reiterated there was a process that needed to be followed, and the technology needed to be vetted.
Marta Harrison serves as the Executive Director of the Ocean County Democratic Committee. When Cunliffe asked her questions about the remote voting software, the answers he received concerned him.
“Apparently, you sign in from either a smartphone or laptop computer once you’re registered to use the software,” said Cunliffe. “When I asked Marta if there’s a way to tell who’s on the other side voting, she admitted there was no way for anyone to determine who was actually placing the vote.”
Kennedy expressed similar concerns, saying that less than a month ago, it was made clear that in-person voting was the only acceptable form of voting for this election year. She questioned the leadership’s decision to use third-party software without any discussion.
“I see that at the set-up, various options are available, including a check-box to allow proxy votes,” Kennedy said. “Per the bylaws, proxy votes are not allowed. We don’t know who is setting up the software and determining the options. Can the set-up be done not allowing for ‘proxy’ and then that later be changed? If so, who has the ability to make that change?”
“Is it possible for someone who opts for a virtual vote by email to forward the email received allowing for the virtual vote to a third party so that someone else can actually perform the vote?” continued Kennedy. “There are way too many questions and always a certain amount of risk involved when using new software for the first time. This is something that perhaps should be looked into for future elections. However, it’s inappropriate to rush it through twelve days before the election.”
Earp was contacted the day before the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit to get clarification on the remote voting and other issues related to his leadership. He did not respond to the request for comment.
Emma Mammano is running as Earp’s vice-chair for the Ocean County Democratic Committee. She provided personal commentary on the remote voting issue and emphasized she was not speaking on behalf of the current leadership.
“I think that any time we can provide an opportunity for people to vote who might not otherwise be able to do so, we should,” said Mammano. “It’s what we strive for as Democrats.”
The Ocean County Democratic Committee Reorganization meeting runs from 1 p.m. until 9 p.m. on June 29, 2022. Mammano said that with COVID still surging and people facing other obligations, she thought the Committee should do whatever they could to maximize voter turnout.
“I have looked at the software a little bit myself,” she said. “I know it’s been successfully used in other counties and that it is designed to be absolutely transparent. It cannot be manipulated in any way.”
“Terrance and his team can be involved in the process,” continued Mammano. “They’ve been invited to do that and check the computers running tabs at the convention. There will be many checks in place to make sure that people are who they say they are and that they can only vote once.”
Mammano said that the fact that the vote by mail amendment failed has nothing to do with the choice to allow remote voting as an option. Instead, she sees the two as separate issues. She also feels the bylaws leave the decision to the organization’s election committee.
According to the Ocean County Democratic Committee’s bylaws, the Election Committee shall “promulgate the rules governing the election of the officers of the Organization.” Only proxy votes and non-contested offices appear separately addressed as part of the rules.
Sources say that Earp and the Ocean County Democratic Committee have retained Steve Secare of Secare & Hensel to defend the complaint brought against them. Secare was on trial as this article went to press and unavailable for comment.