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Police and Coast Guard search for a missing person off the beaches in Ventnor and Atlantic City on Friday.

Lesson from NJ's first mostly vote-by-mail primary election: There's work to do

{child_flags:featured}Work to do after New Jersey’s first election by mail


Staff Writer


The state’s first mostly vote-by-mail primary election is over, but the counting continues, and officials and politicos are warning the state has a lot of work to do before it can handle a vote-by-mail presidential election.

“The statewide voter registration system was not ready,” said Cape May County Clerk Rita Fulginiti. “There were too many problems to rely on the data to send out ballots to all active voters.”

She is hoping for a mix of machine voting and mail-in voting in November.

Clerks’ offices around the state reported frequent crashing of the system, and incorrect information provided to them about voters. Clerks rely on the system to keep track of voter histories, addresses and other data needed to get proper ballots to voters.

Delays in getting results also are a concern, said Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Michael Suleiman.

“We’ve got to figure out why it’s been so slow,” Suleiman said, adding he knows there were machine problems and perhaps a reluctance to spend the money on overtime needed.

Luckily, there were no Atlantic County races close enough to keep people waiting on pins and needles for results.

Democratic candidates in the 2nd Congressional District primary race conceded to presumptive winner Amy Kennedy shortly after the polls closed Tuesday night. Kennedy then immediately called for party unity to beat U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, this fall.

In the Atlantic City mayoral race, with about 1,000 city votes counted by late Tuesday night, Mayor Marty Small Sr. was significantly ahead of his closest competitor Pamela Thomas-Fields, with about 60% of the vote to her 30%.

At that time, just under 10,000 of the 45,000 ballots received county-wide were counted.

During the last presidential primary election in the state, in 2016, just 39,213 votes were cast in Atlantic County, according to the state Division of Elections.

Small declared victory Wednesday, but Thomas-Fields has not conceded.

With about 4,400 city votes counted by Friday afternoon, Small remained ahead with 64.4% of the vote to Thomas-Fields’ 30.1%.

For Tuesday’s election, one of the two scanners Atlantic County had for reading paper ballots broke down, officials have said. And there were problems with the remaining scanner reading some Atlantic County ballots. It read some folds as votes, resulting in 1,200 votes originally being thrown out as overvotes.

The problem was fixed Friday, Board of Elections Chair Lynn Caterson said, and the votes were retallied. The corrections did not change any outcomes, she said.

But fixing the problem slowed down the process. The board was only able to count about an additional 1,000 votes, going from about 28,000 counted at the end of Thursday, to just over 29,000 counted by Friday afternoon.

There are about 6,000 additional provisional votes still to count, Superintendent of Elections Maureen Bugdon has said. People who physically went to the polls Tuesday filled out paper provisional ballots.

By election night, Cape May County had received 18,568 mail-in ballots, and an estimated 2,500 provisional ballots were cast at the polls Tuesday, Fulginiti said.

In 2016, a total of 18,600 votes were cast in the primary in Cape May County.

County Boards of Elections are still receiving ballots and will until a week after the close of polls, as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.

John Froonjian, executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, said the expansion of vote-by-mail did seem to increase participation.

“That many votes tells me that you saw a lot of non-typical primary voters,” Froonjian said. “Usually in primaries it’s just the party activists, people on the committees, in unions or organizations that endorse who are motivated to vote in a primary.”

Many more casual primary voters participated this time, Froonjian said.

“They may have just wanted to express themselves,” he said. “There is a lot of passion, whether you are pro- or anti-(President Donald) Trump. A lot of frustration. A lot of voters are looking for any excuse to vent feelings or express themselves.”

The participation level in the November presidential election is likely to be high as well, he said.

“In many ways, this election is going to be a referendum on Donald Trump,” Froonjian said.



top story
60 years ago, these South Jersey Black leaders fought for change. They see the same fight taking place now.

George Floyd’s death in police custody May 25 set off protests across the country and state. Three senior voices in South Jersey’s Black community spoke to The Press of Atlantic City about what progress, if any, has been made in the past 60 years regarding equality and where the Black Lives Matter protests fit into the legacy of local advocacy.

Ralph Hunter, 82, of Atlantic City, is the co-founder and director of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey. He was about 16 when he moved to Atlantic City from Philadelphia and visited the Black Northside neighborhood for the first time.

“It was the most incredible thing I had ever witnessed in my entire life,” Hunter said. “Moving here for the first time and seeing a Black police force, people walking up and down the street. It was amazing to see a Black cop roll by. They lived and worked in the community. They worked together and built a wonderful city in the north end of the city.”

He would spend his life in retail. His gift store, the Lucky Elephant, was what allowed Resorts Casino Hotel to become Atlantic City’s first casino by meeting its state-mandated minority vendor requirement.

He participated in the 1963 March on Washington and remembers Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party candidate Fannie Lou Hamer decrying she’s “sick and tired of being sick and tired” from Boardwalk Hall during the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

“I’ve heard more people say that in the past few weeks, and I thought I was the only one who knew that quote,” Hunter said.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, Hunter believes the thriving Black community he was awed by when he first moved to the shore began to decline with integration. Part of what made the Northside vibrant was that the money its residents made in the hotel industry stayed in the neighborhood, contributing to home and business ownership.

“Since integration and the end of redlining (a practice used to ensure the segregation of neighborhoods), they can live anywhere their money will take them,” Hunter said. “The next generation could go to college and get a degree and they didn’t come back. That started the decline of African American communities all around the country.”

The issue of policing was exacerbated as Black residents no longer were the jurisdiction of the old Northside’s Black police force.

“A large portion of our police officers (today) don’t look like me, they don’t live in this community,” Hunter said. “That officer doesn’t live here, doesn’t go to the store here. Their kids don’t go to school here. So the only time an officer sees a Black person is while they’re driving-while-Black.”

Hunter, though, sees hope in the current protests.

“When the assassination of George took place, it woke up the world,” he said. “The police need to be more sensitive of where they’re serving. Those police officers have to be part of their community. They have to know the minister’s name, the librarian’s name. I’m very optimistic about the city and South Jersey. All you have to do is talk to someone walking down the street, and you’ll feel this positive energy. From the marching in Washington, D.C., to where we are today ... Black Lives Matter is the turning point.”

Working within the system

Juanita High, “a few years older” than Hunter, was born and raised in Atlantic City. She went to Montclair State University before getting her doctorate at Rutgers.

The Atlantic City she grew up in was segregated.

“As a child, I didn’t have any opinions on it,” she said. “That’s just the way it was.”

High started down the path of community involvement in the late ‘60s after Atlantic Human Resources recruited her from teaching English at Atlantic City High School. She became their education coordinator and learned early on how to affect change from within.

“That was the mantra of that orientation, to work within the system,” High said. “That way systemic change would last longer.”

In 1970, she became director of the then fledgling New Jersey Educational Opportunity Fund. High wrote the guidelines for the EOF, which offers financial support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. She was director for five years.

“It was not easy,” High said. “Being in a position like that, you don’t exactly make friends with the people in power.”

About 1% of the students at Rowan University (then Glassboro State College) were students of color when High became director. Fifty years later, a third of the school’s student population is from under-represented groups and almost 10% is Black.

“We thought the opportunity that we were presenting to not only the students but the institutions involved would filter down and make change,” High said. “To me it was just a start. I know leaders in this state, mayors, doctors, judges that have come through the EOF. I regret that we weren’t able to influence those more.”

While High says there have been serious improvements over her lifetime in areas including access to college education, in other sectors, nothing has changed.

“It’s uncanny that we’re still asking for the same things today. Equality, decent jobs, decent education,” High said. “The unbelievable brutality and abuse of our young Black men and Black women. ... It’s amazing that people are so hung up on skin color.”

Like Hunter, she sees promise in the current protests.

“They’re from all walks of life, all ethnic groups and races. And they’ve lasted so much longer, too,” High said. “I think the people are saying, ‘We’re not going to take this any longer. We’re tired of waiting for the change.’”

For High, the upcoming election is an opportunity to cement that change.

“I think it’s quite important that we follow through,” she said. “Not just walking through the streets, but walking to the ballot box.”

Protests just one piece

Kaleem Shabazz is Atlantic City’s 3rd Ward councilman. The city native will be 73 this month, and he’s spent the better part of six decades advocating for change.

The councilman jumped into the fight for equality as a high school student on the Atlantic City Youth Council. They were registering people to vote and got word that when you registered, your form was marked “C” for colored or “W” for white.

“We didn’t know why they did it, but we felt it wasn’t right, so we demonstrated to have it stopped,” Shabazz said. “We felt it shouldn’t make any difference what ethnic group you belonged to when you registered to vote. It didn’t feel right, and we couldn’t get a good reason.”

Their demonstrations were successful, and the practice was stopped.

“A lot of stuff people did during segregation, if you look at it rationally, it doesn’t make sense,” he said. “People had power, so they did it.”

Shabazz was the head of the Black Student Union at Cheyney State College in Pennsylvania, where he fought for the establishment of a Black studies program. When he demonstrated over the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the school packed his bags during the Thanksgiving break and sent him a letter saying he couldn’t come back.

Fortunately he crossed paths with High.

“She was state director (of the EOF) then,” he said. “I ran into her, and she said they’re taking people into Rutgers. She helped me get in.”

Shabazz said he was the first person in his family to attend college, and without the EOF, he doesn’t think he would have gone.

In 1983, Shabazz worked with Direct Action Youth in Atlantic City to stop an apartheid South African company from establishing a casino here. Sun City Casinos had allies across the state. Nonetheless, the effort to block the organization was successful, and Shabazz was asked to speak to the United Nations Special Committee on Apartheid.

Shabazz stressed the importance of working within the system.

“The protests are only a part of the effort,” he said. “Of course that attracts the attention. It’s very analogous to the anti-apartheid movement, which was also an international movement. The death of George Floyd has kicked off demonstrations all around the world. I think that speaks to the nature of where we’re at. Peaceful protesting is a necessary step to make change, but it’s not the only step. We have to have legislation.”

Shabazz sees the circumstances of Floyd’s death as a tipping point that can push everyone to deal with economic, health and educational disparities so society can move forward.

“Regardless of their political persuasion, I think that (his death) touches everybody,” Shabazz said. “I don’t think anyone can look at that and not be affected. I think that’s what’s going to compel change. I think it’s a flash point, and we’re not ever going to go back to where we were. We are adamantly convinced that nonviolent sustained action can make change.”

PHOTOS from Saturday's Black Lives Matter protest in Atlantic City

Dr. Juanita High outside the St. James AME Church that has influenced her life spent lifting up the community in Atlantic City and across New Jersey. Monday June 29, 2020. Edward Lea Staff Photographer / Press of Atlantic City

High unemployment has not filled seasonal employment gap left by exchange students

OCEAN CITY — One of the ironies of the summer of 2020 — and there seem to be plenty — is that despite double-digit unemployment numbers nationwide, shore businesses are having a tough time hiring staff.

At the historic Flanders Hotel on the Ocean City Boardwalk, management has turned to local high schools to fill the gaps.

“For the first time in a long time, we’re hiring a lot of 17- and 18-year-olds,” said Peter Voudouris, director of hotel and banquet operations at The Flanders.

Usually, the hotel would rely on foreign students, as do many businesses throughout the shore. Thousands of students from around the world participate in the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program, working seasonal jobs around the country, including in Jersey Shore towns each summer. Or, at least they do most years.

“Of course, this year, we can’t get them,” Voudouris said.

It’s not quite accurate to say there are no foreign workers at the shore this year, but with the federal government pausing the program due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the numbers are a fraction of the average.

“Normally, we have 3,000 or so J-1 students. This year, there will be 100 or so in the county,” said Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce. “There is a very serious shortage of employees this year. All of the businesses are telling us that they’re having difficulty filling positions.”

The only students who are able to come this year already had their visas in place before the March decision to shut down the program. But even those with the temporary visas in hand had to find a flight to the United States, Clark said, which can be difficult with marked reductions in air travel.

The exchange program was launched to give college students around the world a chance to see the United States. Many of them work more than one job to maximize their income while in the country.

According to Voudouris, the students tend to be more mature, and many have worked in the travel industry in their home countries. American students are often unable to work the entire summer, he added, with student athletes often expected at practice well before school starts.

“The second week of August and they’re gone,” he said.

The teenager hired for this summer will mostly work in housekeeping, he said. The hotel looked for applicants who seemed ready for the responsibility and did not object to sometimes unpleasant tasks. But returning or experienced employees are preferred, he said, although they are scarce this year.

“When we get into the season, it’s very tough to find the time to train them,” he said.

Most summers, the jobs pay minimum wage or a little more. According to Diane Wieland, Cape May County’s tourism director, some businesses are offering better pay or other perks, such as free ride tickets for some amusement workers or free food.

“It’s an employee’s market right now. If you’re a good, hard worker, you can get top dollar,” she said.

But, she added, it is difficult for seasonal businesses to increase pay by very much when there is such a short window of profitability.

Plus, it’s one more pressure on a summer in which many businesses will be lucky to break even. Wieland and others described this summer as “survival mode” for local businesses, faced with limited occupancy, added expenses to meet state requirements and more work to do with fewer employees.

A June jobs report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics put the national unemployment rate at 11.1%, which would have been a staggering number most years but was an improvement over the April high 14.7%, an all-time high representing tens of millions of people.

In New Jersey, a June report from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development put the state unemployment rate at 15.2%, after an early spring that saw unprecedented numbers of people filing jobless claims.

But there are reasons potential employees are not flocking to the shore. For one, the cost of housing is prohibitively expensive. Also, applicants know it’s a temporary gig.

“Obviously, most people would rather a full-time, year-round job with benefits than to pick up seasonal jobs,” Clark said.

Add to that a federal benefit that put an additional $600 a week into people’s unemployment check, and a job in housekeeping or on the boardwalk just isn’t as inviting, especially for workers with families who would have to find child care to take a pay cut.

“If you can make more money on unemployment, then why go back to work?” said Clark. “We’re just hoping that people will find value in going back to work. They’re tired of being cooped up as we’ve all been.”

Years ago, college students from around the region came to shore towns to earn a little money and spend a summer at the beach, packing into cheap rooming houses or summer rentals. That is no longer the pattern, Wieland said. Students who need money may not want to spend a significant portion of their earnings on a place to live, while those who don’t need the money often look for unpaid internships that may further their careers.

“Another factor is a lot of rooming houses have been torn down or converted into condos,” Wieland said. “And a lot of neighborhoods don’t want group housing.”

Meanwhile, businesses expect to make less money even as the work gets harder, with staff dealing with outside dining, increased workloads and more. Restaurants, retail stores and rides are operating under new limits. Even with state limits on hotel occupancy now lifted, the hotels remain under-booked.

“Reservations are not what they should be,” said Voudouris. “With the students and the regular staff, we should be able to get through the summer.”

Ralph Hunter at the African American Heritage Museum in Atlantic City. The stereotypes include Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and the front of the Cream of Wheat box Thursday June 25, 2020. Edward Lea Staff Photographer / Press of Atlantic City