While Election Day is just 13 days away, few Hoboken officials are taking a public stance on the ballot question that will allow residents to decide whether or not runoff elections will return in 2019.
“Winning 50 % of the vote is democracy 101 and all other similar cities — Jersey City, Bayonne and Newark use them, why don’t we?,” 1st Ward Councilman Mike DeFusco said in an email.
“Runoffs are key to fair elections since they prevent establishment politicians and special interests from intentionally dividing our community, splitting us up into smaller voting blocks, for political advantage. Without runoffs, Hoboken is unofficially sanctioning divisive elections – like last year when 6 mayoral and 14 council candidates ran in a crowded and confusing election. The result was a mayor being elected with 68% of the City voting against him.”
DeFusco, who came in 2nd place in last year’s mayoral contest, would’ve faced Bhalla one-on-one in December under a runoff system. However, with runoffs being abolished via referendum back in 2012, the six-person contest was a winner take all affair.
The outspoken councilman said he recently launched a digital ad pushing to bring back runoffs “since the mayor has been spreading false and cynical narratives in an attempt to prevent updating a dated and broken election system which he benefits from.”
Bhalla’s deputy chief of staff, Jason Freeman, said December elections lead to decreased voter turnout and corrupt practices to broker votes.
“Runoff elections a month later simply create additional cost to the taxpayer, a depressed turnout, and increased influence from corrupt actors. Make no mistake, voter fraud is real, and the US Attorney’s Office is currently investigating such fraud in Hoboken,” he said.
“If the Mayor could be assured that an increased cost to taxpayers could be averted, there would not be a depressed turnout, and corruption would not be a problem, he may support this referendum. But until then, the residents of Hoboken voted to eliminate runoffs six years ago with well over 50% of the vote, and as Councilman DeFusco says, majority rule is Democracy 101.”
The mayor has not changed his stance on this issue since the beginning of the year: in January, he vetoed the council’s effort to put a runoff question on the November ballot, citing “massive vote-buying.”
Since then, a Hoboken woman has been charged with vote-by-mail fraud dating back to the 2013 mayoral contest as part of an ongoing probe by the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The council had a long road getting this initiative on the ballot: needing to pass a first and second reading two times each and then voting for a veto override under both Bhalla and his predecessor, Mayor Dawn Zimmer.
The final vote on the matter came in February, with the override passing 7-2, with Council members-at-Large James Doyle and Emily Jabbour – who both ran on Bhalla’s ticket last year – voting no.
Jabbour has instead pushed for instant runoffs and Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro (D-33) co-sponsored a bill asking the lower house to consider such an initiative.
However, the bill, introduced back in February, hasn’t moved an inch and looks unlikely to even get consideration from state legislators before the end of the year.
Neither Jabbour or Chaparro returned emails seeking further comment.
Back in August, DeFusco, alongside Hudson County Democratic Organization Chair Amy DeGise and Jersey City Ward E Councilman James Solomon, pushed for reinstating runoffs in Hoboken.
At the event, a few people not affiliated with the councilman or the event were handing out fliers for a 501(c)4 non-profit group identified as “New Jersey Democracy in Action.”
While this seemed like a sure fire sign that an aggressive campaign in favor of runoffs was underway, the group has remained almost completely silent for the past two months.
However, a Facebook group “Vote Yes Hoboken,” was created on October 17th and made a post the following day highlighting the benefits of runoffs.
The post was sponsored (paid for) by NJDIA, but no one directly took responsibility for the page or their website.
The “Donate” section of their website says that “Contributions to New Jersey Democracy in Action are NOT subject to state or local pay-to-play laws and donations to the organization are not publicly disclosed according to IRS regulations.”
A call and email to the office of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission was not immediately returned and the group is yet to file any paperwork with NJ ELEC, according to their public online database.
Sources, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, said the group is comprised of residents and business owners afraid to confront Bhalla publicly since “they fear retaliation.”
Multiple people said to be affiliated with the group either declined to comment or did not return inquiries seeking comment.