Sunday, October 30, 2005

Warning, warning, warning--politics full speed ahead

Plainfield residents are growing increasingly agitated with the political tactics being put into play as the November municipal election campaign enters its final week. In a small scale rerun of June's painful primary campaign, the battle is being waged through mailings to voters.

The current flashpoint is a flyer sent out by Plainfield 2005, the local Democratic party campaign committee which is supporting Sharon Robinson-Briggs' mayoral run. It cautions voters they could lose hard-won voting rights if they use an absentee ballot.

The right to vote is not an insignificant issue in a city like Plainfield with a majority African-American population, still the "Warning!!!" mail piece has raised the ire of residents across the city. Its message also flies in the face of efforts statewide by both Democrat and Republican parties to increase voter participation through this method of voting.

"It's unfortunate that it is coming down to a street-level fight," Marion Fowler said. "We don't need any more negativity. Everyone has to live together after the election is over."

On one side of the flyer bold type states: "Too many people have died for your right to go to the polling booth to vote. Don't give it up." On the reverse it makes a charge that supporters of Mayor Albert T. McWilliams' write in campaign are "urging voters to cast absentee ballots for McWilliams and no other candidates."

"I don't get it. How do you lose your right to vote?" Brenda Desena asked. She grew up in South Plainfield and eventually bought a home in Plainfield with her partner because of the supportive community and the nice homes the city offered. "You can vote for everybody. I think they are trying to take advantage of voters."

The flyer goes on to say, "To do so means, you CANNOT vote at your polling place on Election Day for Democratic candidates for Governor, State Assembly, Union County Offices, Mayor or City Council."

"They should be ashamed of themselves for making people think that they can't vote for anyone else than Al," Plainfield home restoration specialist Bill Santoriello said, referring to the Robinson-Briggs camp's attack on Mayor McWilliams' write-in campaign. "That's what they are insinuating."

It's untrue," said Chris Onieal, spokeman for the McWilliams campaign, regarding the flyer's accusations that using an absentee ballot would restrict voters' rights. He also pointed out that "absentee ballots have been a part of both gubernatorial campaigns."

In July Acting Governor Richard J. Codey signed four bills into law that greatly expanded voter access for New Jersey residents.

In fact, Assemblyman Jerry Green, the principal backer of Robinson-Briggs' candidacy, was a co-sponsor of one of those bills. Green, nevertheless said McWilliams is going beyond encouraging people to vote by mail for 'personal reasons', alleging the mayor's supporters will go to homes to help voters fill out the forms.

The whole purpose of the reforms were meant to "restore accountability to state government" because "government cannot function without the public’s trust,” Codey said, according to a press release issued at the time. “But improving the integrity of government also requires that we strengthen the electoral process itself.”

Do Plainfield residents think those values are being upheld in the Queen City?

"I found the flyer very misleading," Robin Gates said, "It's really a scare tactic."

"When Bush wanted to go to war in Iraq," Gates continued, "they used scare tactics to convince people" that the war was necessary. Gates believes that, in a similar way, the Robinson-Briggs campaign is trying to make people believe something that isn't true.

Recently the Corzine campaign put out a very expensively produced brochure promoting the "EZVote" process. It included an actual absentee ballot application that was pre-filled out with the voter's name and a second blank copy to pass along to a friend. The state's new vote-by-mail project is a major undertaking meant to boost voter participation.

Onieal questioned why the local Democratic Party's municipal campaign would not follow the path set by state leaders. He pointed out that "the state and the Corzine campaign are investing millions of dollars" in the Vote-by-Mail initiative and that the "Warning!!!" flyer runs counter to efforts to improve the electoral process throughout the rest of the state.

The mailer overstates the law on using an absentee ballot, saying a voter "receiving an absentee ballot CANNOT vote in person" on Election Day. While this statement is true on the face of it, the worrying language surrounding it unnecessarily raises questions about the legality of peoples' effort to cast their vote.

Consistant with that line of argument, Green said, "People are actually stretching the law to the point where they are actually becoming illegal."

Both the flyer and Assemblyman Green's comments seem to conflate outside interference in filling out the absentee ballot, with the assistance McWilliams supporters are offering to encourage voters to send in applications for the ballot.

"They are talking down to people and insulting the intelligence of the people of Plainfield," Gates said about the Robinson-Briggs campaign. "Its disgusting that they're playing such politics."

"I'm not saying Mr. McWilliams has done everything 100%, but I have yet to see one piece of paper that shows me what Mrs. Robinson-Briggs stands for," Fowler said. "[People] may not like what they have, but they don't know what they're getting" in someone new.

The Plaintalker has contacted both the Corzine campaign and the New Jersey State Democratic party several times by phone and email over a three-day period, but no response to our questions about the flyer was forthcoming from either organization.

Barbara Todd Kerr, with additional reporting by Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: politics, election