National Guard sent to count votes in election

Already facing a grueling year, National Guard members will fill the roles of poll workers across New Jersey during next week’s election.

After mobilizing more than 150 troops in June for its first ever mission in support of a primary election, the National Guard is poised to expand its efforts by backing up election officials across the state for the Nov. 3 general election.

“You are going to be a part of history,” Col. Robert Hughes, commander of the 44th Infantry Brigade Combat Team told soldiers and airmen preparing for the new mission, which will run through Nov. 20. “This is your opportunity to demonstrate to your communities the professionalism of the National Guard.”

Just as during the primary, the mobilized troops will wear civilian clothes and work under the direction of county election officials to perform a range of duties to include manning and sanitizing polling places on election day to processing ballots in the days that follow.

U.S. Army Pfc. Jericho Miguel S. Toledo, Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 3-112th Field Artillery Regiment, New Jersey Army National Guard, files a ballot at the Essex County Board of Elections in Newark, N.J., July 22, 2020. (New Jersey National Guard photo by Mark C. Olsen)

The National Guard’s election mission is an extension of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the outbreak began, hundreds of airmen and soldiers have manned testing centers, built and staffed field hospitals and assisted at senior residential care facilities – all under the direction of civil authorities.

With less than a week to go before the election concludes, New Jersey has sent guards to 18 counties to help process millions of mail-in ballots.

The election missions arose at the request of county election officials who were contending with shortages of poll workers due to the virus.

The guards mobilized for the primary election worked in seven counties and processed nearly 375,000 ballots. For the general election, a force of nearly 250 will report to election officials in 18 of the state’s 21 counties.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Randall J. Ferrara, Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 113th Infantry Regiment, New Jersey Army National Guard, selects a ballot to open at the Essex County Board of Elections in Newark, N.J., July 22, 2020. (New Jersey National Guard photo by Mark C. Olsen)

Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Mahoney, who is among the soldiers mobilized, sees both missions as a logical extension of the National Guard’s role as the state’s military first responders.

“We’re part of an all-volunteer military and we volunteer to do these things because it helps the community,” he said.

The move comes because of a critical shortage in poll workers across the state and concerns over COVID-19.

The preparations come as the United States heads into one of its most contentious presidential elections, which is taking place in the middle of a global pandemic and amid persistent suggestions by President Donald Trump that he may dispute the results if he loses.

Parts of the country have also been experiencing racial justice protests and environmental threats ranging from wildfires to hurricanes, which have further stretched a force already on the front lines responding to the pandemic.

There are about 450,000 members of the National Guard across the country and at least 86,367 of them had domestic deployments under state authorities this year.

For the election, units are preparing to deploy under “state active duty” status, meaning they will answer to the governor of their states and use state funds.

Federal law prohibits the deployment of armed troops to polling places during elections, but National Guard units can do certain missions on Election Day if they are deployed by governors using state funds, which means they would also be unarmed, according to Guard officials.

The deployment also comes at a sensitive moment for the U.S. military, which has struggled to steer clear of the nation’s divisive politics.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, recently emphasized that a disputed election would be handled “appropriately” by the U.S. courts and Congress and said that there would be “no role for the military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election. Zero.”

The 150 New Jersey Army National Guard soldiers who were mobilized to support the state’s primary election had an outsized impact, helping officials to process more than 370,000 votes.

That tally was compiled as they finished the historic mission that began with the election on July 7 and continued with the soldiers – dressed in civilian clothes – working alongside election officials in a half dozen counties until July 24.

“It was a historic effort and I think it was a great opportunity for a lot of Soldiers to get an inside look at how elections work and for a lot of election officials to understand what the National Guard is about,” said Capt. Clinton Bradley, the officer who led the mission.

The state active-duty mission came in response to concerns about a shortage of poll workers and volunteers due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. Maj. Gen. Jemal J. Beale, The Adjutant General, said the Guard’s election effort was an extension of its broader response to the coronavirus, which has included the mobilization of more than 100 soldiers at three Veterans Memorial Homes run by the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
As the primary approached, one election official conceded she was apprehensive about using the National Guard at first because she knew little about the organization.
But Linda von Nessi, a clerk at the Essex County Board of Elections, said her worries evaporated as soon as the soldiers arrived.

“From the minute they got there, their hands were out to help and all they kept asking is ‘What do you want us to do next?” von Nessi said in an interview on July 21. “They are just so respectful, nice and hard-working. I don’t want them to leave.”

The soldiers performed a variety of tasks. On the day of the election, they helped staff polling places and transport ballots and other election materials.

In the days that followed, they worked alongside the election officials to count provisional and mail-in ballots.

Staff Sgt. Craig Farawell, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the operation in Essex County, said in the beginning, the biggest challenge was getting to officials to understand the Soldiers were available for anything. At one point, the soldiers heard election officials talking about retrieving more than 100 hundred large mail bins from a nearby building where ballots had been counted and returning them to the main election office across the street, an operation shorthanded officials in the past had spread out over multiple days.

“We were like ‘There’s 13 of us. We can do that in an hour or two,’ and they were like ‘Really?” Farawell said. “That helped them understand that we’re soldiers. We solve problems.”

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