Two city council seats are up for grabs in Newark’s municipal election on Tuesday.
Polls in Districts 3 and 5 will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., but officials anticipate that by the time the polling place doors open, the majority of votes will have already been cast.
More than 1,100 voters requested absentee ballots, and 622 ballots have been mailed in as of July 15.
“This is my 10th election with the city, and this one has been unique in the amount of absentee participation,” City Secretary Renee Bensley said. “Even when we had the 2013 election for mayor as a special election, which was the week of Thanksgiving, we only had about 125 or 150 absentee ballots. We’ve already got four times that.”
Since the pandemic began, Bensley and her staff have been encouraging Newarkers to vote absentee rather than in person in order to avoid possible exposure to coronavirus at a polling place.
In March, prior to the original election date of April 14, they took the unusual step of proactively mailing absentee ballot affidavits to every registered voter in the two contested districts – a total of approximately 6,000 people. After the election was rescheduled, they sent out a second application to voters who had not yet sent one in.
“My goal is to have as many people vote as have voted in past elections or more, with as few of them coming through a polling place as possible,” Bensley explained last month.
She said last week that it appears the city is well on its way to meeting that goal. If everyone who requested a ballot mails it in, that would surpass the total number of votes cast in 2018 before in-person voting even begins.
Despite the push for absentee voting, the city will have its usual number of polling places open on Tuesday– one for each of the two districts that have a contested race.
The District 3 polling place has been moved from the Aetna fire station to West Park Place Elementary School due to coronavirus contamination concerns. District 5 residents will vote at the First Presbyterian Church of Newark, as usual.
Poll workers will be provided with face masks, face shields, gloves and hand sanitizer. Between each voter, the voting machines will be sanitized with alcohol pads. Voters will each use a different pen to sign in and will be told to take the pen with them when they leave.
Bensley said based on the number of absentee ballots, she would generally expect few voters to show up in person. However, she noted that some other municipalities have seen larger-than-expected in-person turnout because sending absentee applications raised wider awareness of the election, and some of those people decided to vote in person.
She said the polling places will be fully staffed, but warned that extra time will be needed to disinfect the machines. Also complicating matters is the fact this is the first time the state’s new voting machines have been used in a Newark election.
She asked voters to be patient with poll workers and encouraged them to thank the workers who are braving the pandemic to work the election.
“If something doesn’t go exactly the way they may be used to or if it takes a little longer because we have to sanitize the machines, I would just hope that folks would be appreciative of the fact these people are working hard to make sure they can exercise their right to vote,” Bensley said. “Have some patience and kindness. We’re all in this together and we’re all working hard to make sure everybody gets to exercise their right to vote.”
Absentee ballots can be dropped off at city hall until 8 p.m. Tuesday, and election workers will begin counting absentee ballots at 5 p.m. Bensley said she expects to have election results Tuesday night, though they may be released later than usual.
In District 3, newcomers Jay Bancroft and Anthony Sinibaldi are vying for the seat that will be vacated by incumbent Jen Wallace, who is not seeking a third term. District 3 covers the southwest part of Newark and includes Devon, Binns, Arbour Park, Barksdale Estates, College Park, Newark Preserve, Abbotsford, Twin Lakes and surrounding neighborhoods.
Last week, Wallace endorsed Bancroft.
“I believe that Dr. Bancroft’s values are a better match for mine and yours,” Wallace wrote in a message to constituents. “Additionally, his education and background as a scientist will prove beneficial in making the kind of thoughtful, data-driven decisions that I have tried to make on your behalf. He was also involved in the power plant movement, which I think speaks to his willingness to defend his neighbors and community. I think he will be more committed to prioritizing open space, questioning of over development, and helping Newark become more sustainable.”
In District 5, newcomer Brian K. Anderson is challenging incumbent Jason Lawhorn, who is seeking a second term. District 5 is located in the northwest part of the city and includes Christianstead, West Branch, Fairfield, Fairfield Crest, Terry Manor, most of New London Road and surrounding areas.
Meanwhile, newcomer Travis McDermott is unopposed for the District 6 seat and will be declared the winner. He will replace Stu Markham, who is retiring after 14 years on council. District 6 encompasses the northern part of Newark, including neighborhoods off Cleveland Avenue, Paper Mill Road and Old Paper Mill Road.