Petition drive for nonpartisan Camden elections falls short; activists mull their options

In East Camden, Nelson Berrios signs the petition for nonpartisan elections for Mary Cortes, right on Aug. 22.  (April Saul for WHYY)

In East Camden, Nelson Berrios signs the petition for nonpartisan elections for Mary Cortes, right on Aug. 22. (April Saul for WHYY)

Camden City Council members delivered what could be the final blow Tuesday night to a petition drive to return nonpartisan elections to the city, when they ruled that activists had not collected enough signatures from registered voters.

Petitioner Mary Cortes, president of the Cramer Hill Residents Association, said she felt it in her gut.

“It hurt,” she said. “All that walking. All those days in the sun. I ate my dinner without wanting to, my stomach was so upset.”

In the hours following the meeting, activists were trying to understand how their efforts to return to nonpartisan elections, which they believe have the potential to level the playing field for challengers in a city dominated by a Democratic political machine, went downhill so quickly. (If voters approved the measure, the city would have returned to holding just one election for local offices, instead of a party primary followed by a general election.)

Seventy volunteers had spent weeks trying to gather the 1,752 names of registered Camden voters required to put a referendum on the issue to voters and submitted them on Aug. 11 to Camden City Clerk Luis Pastoriza, who by law had 20 days to certify them. On Aug. 18, Pastoriza sent petitioners a letter saying they were 151 signatures short and they had 10 days to amend the petition.

In the Morgan Village neighborhood of Camden, Cinquetta Hurt, left, signs the petition for nonpartisan elections for Ahava Divine on Aug. 22. (April Saul for WHYY)

Along with the letter, Pastoriza included a list of about 200 disqualifications, most of which were instances of a printed name and address with no signature. A handful of others were marked “same hand,” indicating a situation where someone may have signed for him or herself and also on behalf of a family member, which is against election law.

On Aug. 28, the group submitted roughly 300 more names, and in a letter dated Sept. 2, Pastoriza told them the petitions were now “sufficient as to form and number and appear to be in full compliance” and that the initiated ordinance would be passed on to the council for consideration at the next meeting. Activists had expected the measure would be voted down, which — if they had enough valid signatures — would have cleared the way for it to be put on the ballot.

In the meantime, Camden City Councilman Angel Fuentes (who is also Camden County deputy clerk), Camden County Sheriff Gilbert “Whip” Wilson and Sheila Roberts, a board member of the South Jersey Port Corporation, wrote a letter to Pastoriza dated Aug. 24 questioning whether the signatures were from valid Camden voters.

Fuentes had previously expressed his strong opposition to nonpartisan contests, claiming that they require extra elections, which, unlike a primary and general election, are not funded by the state.

As “residents and legal voters” of Camden, the three warned Pastoriza that they were conducting a meticulous review of the petitions — comparing names to voter rolls — and had so far determined that only about 45% of the signatures were valid. In the letter, they called the submission of the petitions with so many invalid signatures “fraudulent and illegal.”

Then, one hour before Tuesday night’s meeting, petitioners received another letter from Pastoriza. This one said that after receiving the letter from Fuentes and the others — and even though he had not yet completed his own comprehensive review — Pastoriza deemed the petitions would fall short after all.

Pastoriza acknowledged his error, and blamed it on him not having access to voter registration rolls to do a more thorough comparison until Sept. 2. Fuentes, Wilson and Roberts apparently had access to those registration records in August when they wrote their letter.

Theo Spencer, one of the activists behind the petition drive said the group didn’t have the benefit of easy access to voter rolls as Fuentes would through his role as the county’s deputy clerk.

“Angel Fuentes is also a concerned citizen that has immediate and direct access to voter registration information!” Spencer said. He had made an open records request for the voter registration rolls in early August so the activists could make sure the names on the petitions were valid, but was told he couldn’t have access to those until Sept. 11.

At the council meeting conducted on Zoom Tuesday, it was announced that the petition had “fallen short and will not be certified,” and the council unanimously voted their agreement.

Fuentes then thanked Pastoriza and his staff, who he said “worked very diligently” and “did the right thing.”

Petitioner Mo’Neke Singleton-Ragsdale said she wasn’t surprised. Like Spencer, Cortes and many others involved in the petition effort, she’d run for local office repeatedly and felt stymied by the huge advantage of Democratic candidates running with the party’s endorsement.

In a city of Democrats and independents with almost no registered Republicans, the primary vote is the decisive one, and challengers are relegated to “ballot Siberia,” often placed many columns away from candidates backed by party leaders, Singleton-Ragsdale said Nonpartisan elections would place all candidates in the same column. As recently as 2007, Camden held nonpartisan elections, as do Trenton, Newark and Jersey City.

“That was some slick stuff,” said Singleton-Ragsdale after the meeting. “They’re not just saying no to the petition, they’re saying no to everybody that signed it.”

Spencer was beyond frustrated.

“The way they did this, they really perpetrated a fraud on us,” he said. “Everything we did was based on the information they gave us. We went out and got names based on needing 150 … If he had said we were 500 short, we would have had a totally different strategy. Pastoriza is basically saying the only reason he didn’t fully vet these was because he didn’t have access to the voter rolls. How are we supposed to vet these if he can’t?”

Fuentes sees no conflict of interest in his role as a county official, councilman and one of three who wrote the letter challenging the signatures.

“This was only as a concerned citizen,” he said. “If this group felt compelled, they would have done it correctly … I think Pastoriza made an honest mistake.” In terms of the activists’ options going forward, Fuentes said, “Anyone can take the clerk to court if they desire. They know the process.”

For former Camden City Councilman Ali Sloan-El, a driving force behind the nonpartisan effort, the fix was always in.

Vance Bowman, center, and Ali Sloan El, at right, collect signatures for petitions to call for a ballot referendum that they hope will restore nonpartisan voting to Camden on Aug. 8. They also registered residents to vote. (April Saul for WHYY)

“They’re moving the goalposts so that when we do get it all done, it’s too late to put it on the November ballot,” he said. “Once it’s on the ballot, people can control their mayor and council.  The county’s been controlling it and the people know it.”

Mary Cortes wasn’t sure what the petitioners’ next step would be.

“We’ve been disenfranchised so many times,” she said. “The city has a monopoly, it has a dictatorship, it has Mafia-like octopus tentacles.

“They’ll do anything to cut our wings.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal