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June 05, 2024

Mail-in ballots opened too early could tilt close House race in N.J.'s 2nd District

A judge will decide Friday whether to count about 1,800 votes in a Democratic primary in which Joseph Salerno leads Tim Alexander.

2024 Election U.S. House
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New Jersey's Democratic primary election in the 2nd District for the U.S. House seat is down to the wire between Joseph Salerno and Tim Alexander. In Atlantic County, a judge's decision looms about whether to count about 1,800 mail-in ballots that election officials opened too early.

The Democratic primary for New Jersey's 2nd District entered Wednesday still too close to call in a race that will determine who faces Republican Rep. Jeff Van Drew in the November general election. The fate of the election could be tilted by a judge's ruling on whether to count about 1,800 mail-in ballots that were opened too early last month.

Businessman and attorney Joseph Salerno holds a lead of 1.2% — a difference of 401 votes — over civil rights attorney Tim Alexander with 93% of the vote counted, according to the Associated Press. Alexander was the Democratic nominee in 2022 and lost to Van Drew by a wide margin that year.

Not yet included in this year's vote count are 1,803 mail-in ballots that the Atlantic County Board of Elections opened on May 6, despite a state law requiring that such ballots not be opened until five days before the election. Of the uncounted mail-in ballots, about 1,100 are from Democrats and 700 are from Republicans, the Press of Atlantic City reported.

Atlantic County Democrats want all of the outstanding mail-in ballots to be counted. A meeting of the Board of Elections on Monday resulted in a 2-2 deadlock, requiring the decision to be made in Superior Court. Assignment Judge Michael Blee has been gathering testimony ahead of his decision Friday to determine why the ballots were opened early.

Under New Jersey law, election officials are permitted to remove the outer envelopes of mail-in ballots when they are received. The inner envelopes must remain sealed until five days before the election.

RELATED: Results of the Democratic and Republican primaries for Senate in New Jersey | Republican primary results in N.J.'s 1st District U.S. House seat | Results for Democratic and Republican in N.J.'s 3rd District U.S. House race

Democrats have described the opening of the ballots as a mistake by the Board of Elections and argued that the voters did nothing wrong to warrant their votes being tossed. Republicans in Atlantic County had sought to have the board send out new ballots to affected voters to return, but that suggestion was denied. Now Republicans have reached out to the New Jersey Office of Attorney General and the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office to open an investigation, since the Board of Elections has not conducted its own investigation into what happened.

The New Jersey Globe reported Wednesday that Salerno appears to be mathematically favored even if the mail-in ballots are counted. Alexander won mail-in ballots by a margin of about 8 percentage points. If Blee rules in favor of counting the ballots and they follow roughly the same ratio of votes, Alexander would still fall short of making up the deficit with Salerno.

The judge's decision is expected Friday morning, well before the state's June 17 deadline for the election to be certified.

The 2nd District covers all of Atlantic, Cape May, Salem and Cumberland counties, as as well as parts of Gloucester and Ocean counties. Van Drew was elected as a Democrat in 2018 but switched parties when he broke with Democrats over their impeachment inquiry into former President Donald Trump in 2019. He since has been elected twice as a Republican.