ATLANTIC CITY — A challenge to the Pleasantville school board election will continue next month in Atlantic County Civil Court.
A hearing on unsuccessful school board candidate Doris Rowell’s petition asking for a new election began Thursday before Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez.
Rowell says the outcome of the election was tainted due to interference by Atlantic City resident and former council President Craig Callaway, his family members and others associates.
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Callaway has denied those claims. He could not be reached Thursday afternoon for comment.
In a letter to the court Feb. 21, the state Attorney General’s Office, representing the Atlantic County Board of Elections and Superintendent of Elections, said Rowell’s challenge “lacks a proper basis ... to proceed.”
Mendez did not address the attorney general’s argument Thursday and instead began putting on the record facts about the election and how mail-in ballots work. Two witnesses, Atlantic County Board of Elections Chairwoman Evelynn Caterson and Atlantic County Deputy Clerk Mike Sommers, took the stand.
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Mendez and Rowell, who is representing herself, asked most of the questions about how many ballots were received and counted, when and by whom, as well as differences between messenger ballots, bearer ballots and ballots received by mail.
Caterson said once a vote-by-mail, received either by mail, bearer or in-person, is received by the Board of Elections, the signatures on the outside envelopes are compared to the signatures on file — usually from the voter’s request for a vote-by-mail ballot.
If it is found to be an acceptable signature, the ballot is removed from the envelope and run through the counting machine.
“We never know who owned that ballot, only if the outside matches,” Caterson said. “If there is a rejection, it never gets opened. We’ve not opened it because it’s not going to be counted.”
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Ballots that come in via bearer — meaning a person other than the voter physically takes the ballot to the Board of Elections — have to be verified by matching the signature of the bearer from the envelope that contains the ballot to what the bearer signs when they arrive at the office. A photo identification is also checked. There is not a method outside of the honor system to verify that the voter is aware that the bearer is returning their ballot.
Rowell won at the polls on election night, but after mail-in ballots were counted, had lost by 39 votes.
Her complaint alleges school board candidates Juanita Pryce, Alejandrina Alberto and Yadira Falcon hired the Callaway family to work on their behalf. Her complaint includes affidavits from Michael C. Bibb, president of the Egg Harbor Township Democratic Committee, and Pleasantville school board member Jerome Page, who was Rowell’s running mate and was re-elected.
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Rowell had requested video surveillance from the county building in Mays Landing from election night, but was recently told it no longer existed. In court Thursday, she expressed her frustration.
“I’ve got to put in on record, Judge, I feel some type of way,” Rowell said.
She said she did not become aware that the video did not exist until five days ago, and had been told prior to that it existed in a different office.
Mendez said he understood Rowell’s frustration.
Rowell also said she sent a complaint to the Superintendent of Elections in October regarding the election and never heard back. The deputy attorney general said they did receive the complaint and that there is an ongoing investigation, but that he could not say anything further on the matter.
“I just felt like I was being ignored,” Rowell told the judge.
The parties will reconvene at 9 a.m. March 10 in the civil courthouse to continue the hearing, where Rowell will have a chance to present her evidence.