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Belleville Mayor Michael Melham

Melham VBM program gets him Reed Award nomination

Belleville mayor designed his own Vote By Mail software, then won 76% of VBM ballots

By David Wildstein, January 21 2019 2:16 pm

Belleville Mayor Michael Melham has been nominated as a finalist for a Reed Award for “Best Use of Online Targeting for a Mayoral Candidate.”

Melham ousted three-term mayor Raymond Kimble in a May 2018 non-partisan election by 90 votes after winning 76% of the Vote By Mail (VBM) ballots using a propriety technology he designed himself.

Kimble won the voting machine vote by 297 votes, 1,650 to 1,353, with another 799 votes for a third candidate, school board member Liza Lopez.  But Melham, who served as a councilman from 2000 to 2004, scored a lopsided VBM win: 473 to 86, with 51 for Lopez.  That moved Melham’s needle for 43%-36% for Kimble to a 41%-40% win.

To win, Melham’s software used historical voting patterns to identify voters unlikely to vote in the May mayoral election.    The key was then to combine technology with a young, energetic army of volunteers to take on an incumbent who represented a different era of Belleville politics.

“Our volunteers maintained a 1:1 ratio with voters,” Melham told the New Jersey Globe last spring. “We married technology with old school campaigns.  It was cool, innovative stuff.”

The generational divide helped Melham build his organization.  He is 43, while Mayor Kimble is 79.

Melham said his VBM program pre-printed applications that mirrored the Essex County voter database to substantially reduce the number of rejected ballots.  The software using SMS technology let voters know when their ballot had been mailed and to follow up to ensure that voters returned their ballots.

“Sometimes our volunteers went back to a house five or six times,” said Melham.  “Our campaign was door-to-door based.”    He said that because of the personal relationship between his volunteers and voters, he was able to build a list of cell phone numbers.

The mayor worked to match volunteers with voters they knew personally, and that those volunteers worked tirelessly for months to secure VBM applications.

“We used technology to communicate, but depended on a grass roots operation,” said Melham, noting that the direct mail campaign run by Vision Media’s Phil Swibinski was critical to his electoral success.  “We didn’t cannibalize the regular get-out-the vote program.  We went after non-Election Day voters.”

Melham has a technology background.  His company, Alpha Dog, designs and runs government websites, including nineteen New Jersey municipalities.  He said he tested parts of his software in recent elections in Lyndhurst and North Arlington before becoming a candidate for mayor.

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