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Belleville Mayor Michael Melham. (Photo: Michael Melham).

Melham combines technology and ground game to win Belleville race

Took 76% of vote-by-mail to beat three-term incumbent mayor

By David Wildstein, May 14 2018 12:06 am

The incumbent Mayor of Belleville was unseated last week by 90 votes in a race where the use of new, proprietary technology the candidate designed himself propelled led to a victory.

Michael Melham ousted three-term mayor Raymond Kimble after winning 76% of the Vote by Mail (VBM) ballots.

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.  “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 preprinted 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-elect says that he 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.

The Essex County Clerk is expected to certify the election results in the next few days.

Editor’s Note: The New Jersey Globe added the hashtag #YannuziBack to an early election night tweet on Melham’s huge VBM lead.  That was an error, based on an incorrect assumption that onetime political operative Richard Yannuzi, a longtime proponent of absentee ballot votes, had returned to local politics.  Clearly Yanuzzi had no role in Melham’s campaign and that any credit toward the victory was incorrect.  We apologize for the mistake.

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