It was the first Democratic primary election for a Millburn Township Committee seat in recent history. And, on Election Day, it brought with it accusations against volunteers of one Democratic campaign by another Democratic campaign, pitting neighbor against neighbor.
The root of these allegations was the Board of Elections-issued Challenger Badges. These badges feature the name of the candidate the challengers represent — in this case Tara Prupis. Some supporters of Corey Biller, who was running against Prupis, confused the badges with the display of materials intended to solicit support for the candidate, a illegal practice known as electioneering.
The New Jersey Department of Elections defines a challenger as “a person who is appointed by a candidate, political party chair (Democrat or Republican), or proponent or opponent of a public referendum. A candidate in the election may also act as a challenger on behalf of him or herself. A challenger is permitted by law to observe the voting process in a polling place or at the location where mail-in ballots are counted (the board of election office) and can challenge a voter’s right to vote or the validity of a mail-in ballot.N.J.S.A. 19:7-1, et seq.; N.J.S.A. 19:7-2; N.J.S.A. 19:7-3; N.J.S.A. 19:7-5.”
The deadline to file the appropriate paperwork to be appointed a challenger with the Essex County Board of Elections is no later than two weeks before an election. The candidate must list the name of each challenger and their corresponding assigned election district. In addition, “The Essex County Board of Elections furnishes badges which must be worn while challenging. They show which candidate or party the challenger represents.”
A neighbor and fellow Democrat confronted Richard Wasserman, a volunteer poll watcher for the Tara Prupis campaign, about his badge early yesterday.
“He said it was inappropriate and was electioneering,” Wasserman explained. “As soon as he said that, I told him I thought he was incorrect but let’s go to the election official in charge of the polling station to verify. I showed her [the official] my credentials and the badge and asked if they were appropriate. She told me they were in order and I could take my seat.”
As challenges must happen before voting, the poll worker instructed Wasserman to sit what he estimates is about five feet away from the election check-in table for his district to observe during the time he was there.
By yesterday evening various social media accounts were reporting police had approached Wasserman regarding electioneering. They had not, reported Wasserman and confirmed by a poll worker. “It’s painful, these are your friends and neighbors making false accusations about you,” Wasserman said. “We’re all Democrats, trying to make this town better. This whole thing makes me very sad.”
The poll workers at the District 8 polling station confirmed Wasserman’s version of events. One worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “It wasn’t just the resident. Initially, some of the other poll workers asked if he could wear the challenger badge since they have a candidate’s name printed on them. I explained that he was wearing exactly what he should be wearing to identify himself as a challenger and for whom. I think because so many of the poll workers were new and had never seen a challenger badge before- it is unusual to have a challenger unless it’s a contested election- it threw them.” She continued, “The poor man was so concerned when he first arrived because he didn’t know where to sit, we had to show him exactly where to sit. He wanted to be sure to do everything correctly.”
“This would have never have happened if this was not such a contentious election,” said Corey Biller supporter Lewis Goldberg, “but it is.”
Wasserman contended that the animus stems from the controversial Complete Streets project which has divided residents. Goldberg agreed.
“If Tara Prupis talked about property taxes, or schools, or anything other than Complete Streets, I’d listen to her and probably support her if she won the line, but she hasn’t. She has one issue.” Goldberg said. “I’ve worked in politics from local to the national level for a long time, and I have never crossed party lines voting other than in Millburn-Short Hills. But it’s a profligate choice to rip out a project we’re going to have to pay for anyway as taxpayers- that money was borrowed and spent- at the very least put it to a vote. Let residents decide what to do.”
For her part, Prupis avoided social media yesterday and was unaware of the incidents at the polls when questioned for comment in the afternoon. “I am trying to focus on the positive, and my campaign, and what we can do to help our town,” she said.
Biller’s campaign has not yet responded to requests for comment.
The winner will face Republican incumbent Deputy Mayor Jodi Rosenberg in the November election.