Anatomy of voter fraud Will officials follow up on alleged $10 vote payoff?

During the morning of the Hoboken City Council run-off election on June 12, former Zoning Board President John Branciforte, who has lived in Hoboken for 19 years, was walking to a voting location on 13th Street when he saw something unusual on the corner of 12th Street and Willow Avenue.

According to Branciforte, two Caucasian men were standing in a semi-circle of about seven men, and were holding an envelope and handing out 3×5 index cards.

“I knew instantly something suspicious was going on,” said Branciforte.

Branciforte was actually heading to volunteer as an election challenger on behalf of 5th Ward council candidate Peter Cunningham at the Fox Hill Gardens polling place. The role of a campaign challenger is to look for suspicious voters.

As Branciforte passed the semi-circle, he took special notice of one of the men who was receiving a card – a gray-haired man who reminded him of someone he knew.

Soon after Branciforte arrived at Fox Hill, he noticed that very same man coming in to vote, he said last week. Branciforte waited for the gray-haired man to sign his name in the voter book, then officially “challenged” him. “A county worker asked for his ID,” Branciforte recounted last week. “He said, ‘My wallet’s in my car.’ I said, ‘Screw this; I’m following the guy.’ ”

While allegations of voter fraud have haunted past elections in Hudson County, there have been no proven cases in recent years.

So Branciforte saw an opportunity to prove something was amiss. He believed that the 3×5 cards may have had names on them that the phony voters would use to vote.

The list of registered voters in Hudson County is public information, as is the information on when they last voted. Therefore, it is easy to find out who hasn’t voted recently, and to have someone else try to vote in that person’s name.

“I started to follow him,” Branciforte explained last week. “He ran across the street to Willow where the other people were. They ran down 14th Street. He broke the other way, south down Willow. I called the police. I said, ‘I’m working the poll at Fox Hill, chasing someone who just committed voter fraud.’ I stayed on the phone with them, got to Washington and 10th, and waved down a cop.”

Branciforte’s suspicions were later confirmed.

According to a police report, the 51-year-old gray-haired man gave the police his name and said that he lived in a homeless shelter in Jersey City.

However, he had signed the book with a different name, the name of registered voter Kevin Logan, according to the police report.

The man told police that earlier that morning, someone came to St. Lucy’s shelter in a car and asked the homeless men outside the shelter if they wanted to make $10, the police later told Branciforte. The homeless man told police that he was paid to vote for a specific person.

“As far as I know, this is the first time anyone actually admitted to taking money to vote, that got physically chased down and caught,” said Branciforte, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 1999.

However, despite the incident, and despite the fact that both the county Superintendent of Elections and the Attorney General were notified, it was determined that since the homeless man hadn’t actually voted, he couldn’t be charged with a crime. He was released.

But in the wake of so many rumors of election fraud in Hoboken, questions remain, such as: Will law enforcement officials follow up to try to determine who paid the man off? How many other times did this happen? And who was behind the apparent fraud – local candidates, or one of the powerful county Democratic organizations?

‘Sleazy political operative’

Almost two weeks after the incident, police and officials have acquired little additional information on one of the only incidents of proven voter misconduct in Hoboken.

Branciforte described the man he saw holding the envelopes on Election Day as looking like “a sleazy political operative,” but said he didn’t recognize him or remember much about him.

There was no description of him given to the police by the homeless man (whose name the Reporter is withholding since he hasn’t been charged with a crime).

Branciforte said that the homeless man told the first police officer on the scene that he was voting for candidate Perry Belfiore. However, the man soon changed his story.

Branciforte said that the homeless man later told a different police officer that he was actually paid to vote for Cunningham. That information made it into the police report.

Branciforte said that the man only named Cunningham after he overheard Branciforte tell the police officer that’s who he was working for.

The police report states that the man said he was voting for Cunningham.

The person behind the activities

Last week, both Cunningham and his opponent in the election, Perry Belfiore, said that they believed there was an organized effort coordinated by outside actors to shape the outcome of the election.

In fact, in recent months, Hudson County has been ravaged by a bitter political war – a war between two opposing Democratic factions over the June 5 Democratic primary elections for the state Assembly and Senate seats. Both the Hudson County Democratic Organization and a newer group called the Democrats for Hudson County supported candidates in the June 5 primary elections. Those forces also were allied with certain candidates in Hoboken’s three council run-off elections the following week.

In other words, there was plenty of political muscle left over from June 5 to concentrate a week later on June 12. “This was more than just an individual taking a matter into their own hands,” said Cunningham. “This had to be a well-crafted, well-planned component to the campaign process.”

Belfiore said he doesn’t believe that his opponent was involved in the fraudulent activity. “I don’t think that Peter was a part of this,” he said. “I think people tried to intervene in this election, the extent of which remains to be seen.”

Both Belfiore and Cunningham also were allied with two powerful local machines. Belfiore received the backing of 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo in the run-off election, and Cunningham is close with Dawn Zimmer, who received HCDO financial backing.

Questionable action, but was law broken?

Hudson County Board of Elections Clerk Michael Harper, who was also working in Hoboken on Election Day, said that his office does not take election misconduct likely.

“It’s something we take very seriously and will look into,” Harper affirmed. However, he said the decision on whether to do a follow-up investigation is up to the Hudson County Superintendent of Elections. Several calls to the superintendent’s office were not returned during the week, but on Friday, a worker in the office said that they had spoken to the state Attorney General’s office about the matter and were awaiting word as to whether the Attorney General is looking into it.

According to the Hoboken Police Department, the case of the homeless man was the only one that day resulting in a police report.

Both Cunningham and Branciforte said that they heard that the incident was not the only case of irregular voting activity that day. They said that there were cases in which someone went to the polls to vote and found out that someone else had actually voted in their place. Those matters were reported to the superintendent of elections. Harper said there may have been more reports of voter fraud in the run-offs than usual.

“It seems from initial reports it was higher this year than in past years,” he said.

Cunningham pointed out that because there were only three council run-off elections, politicians who had put their efforts into Hoboken’s six original City Council elections on May 8 now had a chance to get more involved in the three run-offs.

It is common in Hoboken each year for candidates to pay an army of local residents $40 to $75 to help get out the vote on election day, and sometimes, the voters are told that they have to vote in order to get paid. But it is not illegal unless they are specifically told whom to vote for. And of course, it is illegal to vote using someone else’s name.

“The gray area is that it’s okay to pay people to work the campaign, but it’s illegal to pay them to vote,” said Cunningham. “But unless they have actually gone in and cast the vote, it’s hard to say it’s election fraud.”

The homeless shelter

Last week, a trip to St. Lucy’s shelter on Wednesday morning around 8:15 failed to turn up further evidence of the crime. Residents of the shelter are forbidden from sitting on the steps outside the shelter after 8:30 a.m. A group of four homeless people sitting around the corner said that they hadn’t heard about the $10 offer, but that they had heard of people being asked to register people for elections in past years.

“Can I get $10 to be a witness?” one man joked.

Workers inside the shelter said they were unaware of the incident.

Reached by phone last week, shelter director Brenda Pulaski said she was not aware of the incident, and thus, did not want to comment further.

What next?

Cunningham, who will be sworn in today (July 1) as 5th Ward councilman, said he plans to file grievances on all of the irregularities that occurred in his ward, both with the Attorney General’s office and the County Board of Elections.

Belfiore said that he does not plan to file complaints.

Both Cunningham and Branciforte suggested that people try to update their voter registration records. In a transient city such as Hoboken, it is easy for people to vote for others who have moved away, since many often do not have their names removed from the voter registry after they move.

The real Kevin Logan, when reached by phone last week, was surprised and intrigued to hear that someone may have tried to vote in his name last month. He said he no longer lives in the 5th Ward and did not vote in the council election. He said he last voted in 2004.

Circumstances may change

After the Reporter started calling the Hudson County Superintendent of Elections office on Tuesday, someone from the county offices called the Hoboken Police Department later that day to get a copy of the report on the incident with the homeless man.

A police spokesman said that to his knowledge, no one had asked about the report before that phone call on Tuesday.

On Friday, a worker at the Superintendent of Elections office said they would probably know this coming week whether they will investigate the matter.

David Wald, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s office, said he could not confirm whether they will look into the matter. He said that it is definitely illegal to sign someone else’s name in the voting register.

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