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On Oct. 17 2020, in Millville, Millville High School football hosts St.Joseph’s High School.

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With stay-at-home orders lifted, experts mixed on how domestic violence rates were influenced by COVID-19

BRIGANTINE — A purple ribbon tied around a telephone pole was all that remained Friday of a memorial for Rachel Declementi, a 30-year-old woman officials allege was killed by her husband in August in the city home they shared.

Shortly after her death, a poster was attached to the pole in front of her seafoam blue home in the first block of Girard Place, and flowers were placed around it. The poster read “No community is immune to domestic violence” and “Rest in peace Rachel,” along with the phone number for Avanzar, formerly the Women’s Center.

Neighbors described Rachel as kind and friendly, and spoke about her efforts to plant flowers and spruce up her house during stay-at-home orders earlier this year mandated by state officials to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Even though they didn’t know too much about her aside from neighborly chitchat, several said her death was a shocking tragedy.

Experts worried in the spring that instances of domestic violence might increase due to the stay-at-home orders. Being stuck in close quarters with an abuser could turn an already stressful situation volatile, they said, when combining everything else the disease brought with it: financial pressures, loss of employment, mental health issues and even hunger.

The stay-at-home order was lifted in June, but the resulting effects the mandate had on domestic violence rates have experts mixed. Some said it might be too soon to tell, while others believe instances of violence have increased dramatically. And at least one recent study shows some victims were unable to safely get help.

A study published last month in The New England Journal of Medicine found stay-at-home orders meant to protect the public and prevent widespread infection left victims trapped with their abusers, and they weren’t able to call for help.

“In some regions, the number of calls dropped by more than 50%,” according to the study “A Pandemic within a Pandemic — Intimate Partner Violence during COVID-19.” “Experts in the field knew that rates of (intimate partner violence) had not decreased, but rather that victims were unable to safely connect with services.”

Victoria L. Chase, a clinical associate professor of law at Rutgers-Camden who also directs the Domestic Violence Clinic there, said “it is difficult to summarize what we have experienced.”

She said there has not been an uptick in new restraining orders filed.

“That does not indicate an absence or decrease in the problem of (domestic violence), but rather, people did not seek the intervention of the courts,” Chase said. “Maybe fear of the unknown, concern for family and hunker-down mentality was part of this. Maybe it was hard to understand how courts were operating as well.”

However, it is too soon to make comparisons to national data, she said, which will come in a few months to a year.

Conversely, Valeria Marcus, an Atlantic City resident, domestic-abuse survivor and activist, said it was worse than predicted.

“We have known this has been going on for centuries. This is nothing new. We’ve seen more of it since the pandemic,” Marcus said. “Violence and abuse is all the way around us; it’s global. It’s out of control.”

There have been at least three instances of alleged domestic violence that have garnered criminal charges in South Jersey so far this year, one each before, during and after the lockdown. All three cases are set to go before a grand jury, court records show.

Robert T. Woods Jr., 45, is charged with two counts of aggravated assault, endangering an injured victim, possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose and possession of a weapon in the Jan. 21 beating of his father, former professional baseball player Bobby Woods, in the Margate home they shared.

Then, on April 3, Alyson R. Gill, 55, of Somers Point, was charged with first-degree murder and third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose in the death of 67-year-old Somers Hickman, her roommate.

Most recently, in August, Robert Declementi, 36, was charged with murder in Rachel’s killing.

A hotline run by Avanzar didn’t see a dramatic increase in calls after Rachel’s death, said Donna O. D’Andrea, a victim advocate.

“We sometimes would see an increase then in calls,” she said. “I’m not saying we didn’t, but nothing drastic, because sometimes cases like that bring it to the forefront.”

D’Andrea said it’s more difficult to engage survivors now than before the pandemic, since most interactions are done over the phone and not in person.

“I think we’re fortunate because we didn’t hear about more cases where individuals were killed,” D’Andrea said. “At least in our area, because some places did see big increases in domestic violence cases where someone was killed in the incident.”

Overall, officials are still working on bringing awareness to different types of domestic violence, she said.

“It’s emotional, psychological and that’s the part that most people don’t understand,” D’Andrea said. “That’s where we’re still trying to validate a victim’s experience for that, because we know that this lockdown probably increased individuals experiencing that behavior that don’t recognize it as domestic violence.”

Congressman Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, and Democratic challenger Amy Kennedy debate Oct. 8 in the Fannie Lou Hamer Room at Stockton University’s Atlantic City campus.

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Nation's eyes on Van Drew, Kennedy race

For the first time in decades, the race for the House of Representatives in New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District is one of the nation’s hottest and most closely watched.

Congressman Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, 67, is facing Democratic challenger Amy Kennedy, 41, of Brigantine.Kennedy is a former Northfield school teacher and mother of five who is married to Patrick J. Kennedy, the former Rhode Island congressman who is the son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. She has never been elected to any office.

Van Drew has held just about every office in New Jersey government, from township committeeman to freeholder, assemblyman and state senator.

Recent polls show Kennedy ahead by four to six percentage points, but Van Drew questions their accuracy, saying they oversampled Democrats and left-leaning independents.

Political experts say a House member is most vulnerable to being voted out after their freshman term.

Van Drew has been in the national eye since being elected as a moderate Democrat in 2018, and on his first day in office made it clear he would not be in lockstep with his party. He made national news for voting “no” for Nancy Pelosi to be speaker of the House of Representatives.

His independent streak continued with frequent appearances on the conservative Fox network’s news shows, with his calling for bipartisanship to end the national government shutdown of early 2019, and with his standing for both stronger border protection measures and for a path to citizenship for “dreamers” — undocumented immigrants brought here as young children by their parents who have only known the United States as their home.

It culminated in a “no” vote to impeach President Donald J. Trump, resulting in a split with his party and a change to Republican that again drew national coverage.

Now, he is up against a powerful force in Kennedy, a mental health advocate who is calling for more attention to emotional and psychological health to help smooth relations between the public and police, and between the races.

The two have more in common than one might expect.

Neither favors the state legalizing recreational marijuana, which also will be on the ballot Nov. 3.

Both would favor decriminalizing marijuana and removing it from the list of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s Schedule 1 drugs, considered “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Marijuana, or cannabis, is on the list along with heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone and peyote, according to the DEA.

Being on the Schedule 1 list prevents research on it as a medicine, they both say. Medical marijuana is already legal, and thousands of New Jerseyans are using it therapeutically.

Both also say they will protect the rights of those with pre-existing conditions to access affordable health insurance, but Kennedy favors expanding the Affordable Care Act, while Van Drew favors scrapping it once a better alternative is available.

PHOTOS from Jeff Van Drew and Amy Kennedy's debate at Stockton

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church kept a steady line of at least five cars during the first day of its drive-thru festival.

Congressman Jeff Van Drew and challenger candidate Amy Kennedy during New Jersey’s 2nd congressional district debate Thursday Oct 8, 2020, at Fannie Lou Hamer Room on the campus of Stockton University in Atlantic City, NJ. Edward Lea Staff Photographer / Press of Atlantic City

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How the Electoral College affects elections, and what could be done about it

Most adults living in this country know divisiveness defines the current political landscape.

But this isn’t the first time the various political leaders in America could not all agree on one thing.

The creation of the Electoral College, the body that votes to choose the person who will serve as president and vice president of the United States, was created via a compromise during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 in Philadelphia, said Claire Abernathy, an assistant professor of political science at Stockton University.

Fifty-five delegates from 12 of the 13 states at that time came from across the country and gathered to develop the Constitution, Abernathy said.

“Initially, they decided Congress would appoint the president, but they weren’t entirely satisfied with that. It didn’t have a clear separation between the branches of the government that way,” Abernathy said. “So, as a compromise, they developed the Electoral College.”

The Electoral College has representatives from each state, who are not members of Congress, who are appointed as electors. They cast their state’s votes for president and vice president.

“That is the mechanism that determines who wins the presidency and the vice presidency,” Abernathy said.

The number of electors in each state is based on the number of representatives in the House of Representatives plus two people representing the two senators, Abernathy said. A person needs 270 electoral votes to be named president.

New Jersey’s 14 electors will meet during the afternoon of Dec. 14 at the State Capitol in Trenton, Abernathy said. Electors are usually party loyalists, activists, or local or state elected officials, she said.

“They officially cast ballots for president and vice president, a separate one for each. Those ballots are collected, sealed and sent down to D.C.,” Abernathy said. “This will be happening across all the states Dec. 14. Sealed electoral votes will be opened Jan. 6 in the Senate.”

In 29 of the 50 states, there is some type of requirement for the electors’ vote to reflect the will of the people or penalty involved if the electors’ vote is out of line, Abernathy said.

New Jersey doesn’t have this requirement, Abernathy said.

Electors who vote for or attempt to vote for a candidate they are not pledged to are called faithless electors. In 2016, faithless electors voted for Colin Powell, John Kasich, Ron Paul, Bernie Sanders and Faith Spotted Eagle.

Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 by earning 304 electoral votes compared with Hillary Clinton’s 227, but the Clinton-Kaine ticket collected almost 3 million more popular votes than the Trump-Pence ticket.

In the wake of this discrepancy, talk arose again around the idea of abolishing the Electoral College, just as it did when George W. Bush beat Al Gore in 2000. Gore gained 50.9 million votes versus Bush’s 50.4 million votes, but Bush was named president because he earned 271 electoral votes compared with Gore’s 266.

One of the main reasons for keeping the Electoral College is that it is an institution that provides stability, Abernathy said.

“We know how it works, and any change to the way we run elections that changes the Electoral College, that got rid of it, would result in a lot of uncertainty and might shift the way candidates have to campaign or who the decisive voters are,” Abernathy said.

There are persuasive arguments to change or abolish the Electoral College as well, Abernathy said.

Abolishing or getting rid of the Electoral College would require a Constitutional amendment because it is part of the Constitution, which calls for two-thirds of the House and Senate voting to make the change and then three-quarters of the states signing on also, Abernathy said.

Abernathy usually spends more time talking to her students about reforming the Electoral College than about it being abolished.

New Jersey and most other states use a winner-take-all formula. If you win the state, you earn all the electors. Maine and Nebraska use a state district allocation plan, Abernathy said.

“They give two electoral votes to the statewide popular vote winner,” she said. “The remaining electoral votes go to the winner of the popular vote in each congressional district.”

Another reform would be proportional allocation, where candidates would receive electoral votes based on the proportion of the vote that they earned in the state.

“So if you had a Democratic candidate get 60% of the vote in New Jersey, they would get 60% of the electoral votes, which would be eight instead of 14,” Abernathy said.