Red Flags: How much does it cost to buy an election in Hoboken’s 4th ward?

Outgoing Hoboken Councilman Michael Lenz’s supporters say it costs about $22,000.

That’s how much his opponent Tim Occhipinti spent on “campaign workers” to win Ward 4’s Council seat in November. What’s unusual about that? Well, nothing, until you consider that there were about 575 of them, and that for all that Election Day “field” help there was little Occhipinti campaign presence visible on 4th Ward streets (say the Lenz folks). And that Occhipinti paid 575 workers for an election in which only 2,076 people cast ballots (Lenz Election Day paid workers = 17). Most alarming is a spike – a big one – in vote-by-mail ballots, and who it was who turned them in: overwhelmingly it was Occhipinti’s “campaign workers”. Hoboken Ward 4 absentee voting dwarfs that of every other election in Hudson County, according to the Hudson Clerk’s figures. The county prosecutor’s office recently referred 190 vote-by-mail ballots to the state Attorney General’s office, though it’s not known if any investigation concerns the Lenz campaign’s allegations.

Take a gander at this graphic, then tell me you don’t see red flags. You’re looking a chart of the vote-by-mail percentages for the Hudson County general election (data source). Compare Occhipinti’s absentee voter percentages with other Hudson races, and with Lenz’s race:

Hoboken Ward 4 2nd GRAPHIC

We wrote about this Oct. 28, when 3 Ward 4 residents swore out affidavits saying they were offered “$40 as an incentive to vote absentee”. But this is bigger now. The new information, via ELEC final campaign spending reports illustrates that the breadth and size of what may be election corruption may be far greater. Do we know there was corruption? We do not. But where this many red flags are raised, there should be investigation. And Hoboken’s next election should be monitored by credible election protection experts.

Some of Hoboken’s councilmembers are already taking a position: “It looks like he bought the election,” says Councilman Ravi Bhalla, who is also volunteer legal counsel for the Lenz campaign. Among Occhipinti donors: Councilmembers Michael Russo and Beth Mason. Among Lenz’s: Bhalla, fellow councilmember Carol Marsh and Mayor Zimmer. Bhalla  goes so far to allege forgery. Of 99 ballots thrown out election night, he says 82 had mismatched signatures. In 2 Ward 4 districts, about 80% of absentee voters were also employed by the Occhipinti campaign.

For the record, an Occhipinti spokesman denies  any wrongdoing, and rejects the suggestion that the payment to “campaign workers” (most paid $40, some $100) was not for their labor but to buy their vote-by-mail. An Occhipinti spokesman:

Campaign workers did everything from wearing t-shirts to making calls to prospective voters, canvassing, walking with Tim, and distributing signs.

In addition, Occhipinti himself says all campaign staff signed a contract outlining duties, agreeing to “lawfully promote and encourage the participation of voters,” and to “engage in only lawful conduct.” Occhipinti also says it costs more to topple an incumbent, which is why he raised/spent more.

Of Hoboken’s 6 wards, only the 4th was in play in November, a special election to Dawn Zimmer’s seat, after she was elected out of Council to become mayor. Lenz was appointed to the seat, but had to run to keep it last month.

But take a look at the figures for vote-by-mail after the jump – the math behind the graph above. Ward 4’s huge absentee spike may indeed be more than good field work, as Occhipinti’s campaign suggests. It may be an attempt – a successful one – to purchase the votes, for not much money, of Hoboken residents who needed the jingle in their pockets and didn’t mind allowing their names to be written in on ballots they may not have even filled in themselves. There may indeed be more – much more – than a loser’s sour grapes involved in these allegations.

On such things, the direction of a city may turn.

Vote-by-mail percentages for Hudson County, after the jump.  

Vote by Mail ballots/Total ballots Cast = VBM percentage)

(data source)

House 9th: 1185/20910 5.7%

House 10th: 683/10877 6.3%

House 13th: 2912/65696 4.4%

Assembly 31: 1034/32332 3.2%

County Sheriff: 3687/96134 3.8%

East Newark Council: 7/224 3.1%

Guttenberg Council: 68/1634 4.2%

Harrison Mayor: 103/2612 3.9%

Harrison Ward 1 Council: 15/502 3.0%

Harrison Ward 2 Council: 26/625 4.2%

Harrison Ward 3 Council: 37/829 4.5%

Harrison Ward 4 Council: 25/656 3.8%

Hoboken Ward 4 Council: 440/2215 19.9%

Jersey City Ward B Council: 143/4551 3.1%

Kearny Ward 1 Council: 16/913 1.8%

Kearny Ward 2 Council: 19/783 2.4%

Kearny Ward 3 Council: 60/1718 3.5%

Kearny Ward 4 Council: 23/1312 1.8%

Secaucus Ward 1 Council: 95/1335 7.1%

Secaucus Ward 2 Council: 169/1820 9.3%

Secaucus Ward 3 Council: 119/1788 6.7%

Public Question #1: 3687/96134 3.8%

Comments (3)

  1. Carl Bergmanson

    Some folks figured out a while back that you can buy a guaranteed vote using Absentee Ballots, it now seems to be SOP in some places – as word gets out, look for it to spread…

  2. Rosi Efthim (Post author)

    Where else? Feel free to hit us up off-blog.  

  3. Carl Bergmanson

     there have been several widely-reported cases nationwide for the last decade or so, mostly in the South as I recall…

    The biggest problem is with primary, local or special elections, because a relatively few votes can make a big difference.

    While vote buying has probably been around since Greece, absentee ballots are particularly vulnerable because the buyer can make sure the vote is just what he paid for before paying the voter, and then mail it in himself…


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