The Essex County Board of Elections may be backing off a plan to turn the Claridge condominium towers into their own voting district.
In March, with little fanfare, the Board voted to approve turning the Claridge complex into its own voting district. Under the plan, Claridge I and Claridge II would by themselves constitute Verona election district 1 and switch their polling location from Laning Avenue elementary school to Claridge II. All other residents of the former district 1 would be merged into district 10 and would continue to vote at Laning. But on Friday, April 3, the Board gave notice that it would meet on Friday, April 10 to review that decision.
The County Board of Elections meets at the start of every year to review polling places and change them if necessary. Under New Jersey law, anyone can make a request for a change to polling places, but the Board is not obligated to consider it: There was a request to alter the Claridge district in 2003, but it was not approved. While all of Verona’s polling places have traditionally been in schools, private buildings can be used (and are used in many of New Jersey’s larger cities), as long as they are handicap accessible. The Claridge towers are and voters from Claridge I could have their cars held or parked by the Claridge II valets when they go there to vote. The Claridge towers could also be their own district because they exceed the minimum size, which is 700 voters: There are 274 apartments in Claridge I and 330 apartments in Claridge II.
The new request was made by Nicholas Amato, the president of the board of Claridge II, though it is not known why he requested the change. MyVeronaNJ.com left two phone messages with Amato’s law office last week and also sent an email requesting comment; none was returned.
Since 1965, when the first Claridge tower was built, and 1976, when its sister building was added, Claridge residents have voted at Laning, a school with ground level access at the main entrance and a handicap ramp by the new gym where voting has been conducted since 2007.
Election turnout by district 1 voters fluctuates widely according to the election. In the general election of 2014 for New Jersey’s U.S. Senate seat, turnout in district 1 was 32.56% of 1,029 registered voters, above the 28.02% average for Essex County. But district 1 voters have not been heavy voters in the last two Town Council elections. In 2011, only 128 votes came from all of district 1 in the race for the two four-year terms and only 66 ballots were cast in the race for the one two-year term. In 2013, only 83 ballots were cast in district 1, or 7.97% of the 1,041 voters registered. (A percentage comparison with 2011 was not available because of computer issues at the Essex County Clerk’s office).
District 1 voters also don’t seem to be availing themselves of mail-in ballots, a convenience that anyone can now use, whether they will be in town on election day or not. There were 187 mail-in ballots for the 2014 election, all from district 11, which includes the Hillwood senior citizens building.
It is not known why the Board of Elections is revisiting the decision, although there has been a mixed reaction to it among Verona’s political party leaders. Jay Sniatkowski, a Town Council member and deputy mayor who is also the Verona Republican Party chair, said he didn’t support the change at first because he thought it would involve sending voters across Pompton Avenue, creating potential traffic and safety issues. He said he also thought it raised a question of whether the Highlands at Hilltop, the big apartment complex on Verona’s western ridge, could also be its own district. Sniatkowski said he spoke with the Board’s clerk and after his questions were answered, he came away with a favorable view of the change. “You don’t want to exclude people from voting,” he said. “This change reality affected no one but the people at the Claridge House.”
But Teena Schwartz, a former mayor who is chair of the Verona Democratic Party, says she still has questions about the decision. “I have concerns because it is redrawing district lines to where a district is entirely within a closed community. No candidate would have access to the district.” Schwartz noted that, in both of her first two campaigns for Town Council, she rang doorbells across most of Verona. Candidates can’t do that in the Claridge buildings.
Township Manager Joe Martin said last week that the township had not been involved in the decision to bring voting to the Claridge. “We do not have a horse in the race,” he said. Martin also said that he did not know how much moving the polling place to Claridge II would cost Verona taxpayers. That cost could include both additional voting machine rentals and a police presence, since Verona typically stations an officer at each polling location.
There have been efforts to encourage more voting at the Claridge even without a district change, such as Town Council candidate nights held in the buildings. In May 2013, Amato and the Claridge II Board sent a letter to Claridge residents on Board letterhead about the upcoming Town Council election. It said that while “all seven candidates are well intentioned and if afforded the opportunity will do their best for Verona,” the board recommended that residents support three candidates: Jay Sniatkowski, Bob Manley and Rich Williamson. District 1 turnout fell 27% in that election but Sniatkowski finished first among the six candidates, with Manley and Williamson tied for second. Williamson, who fell one vote short of a seat in 2013, is a candidate this year.