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June 07, 2024

Disputed mail-in ballots in Democratic primary for N.J.'s 2nd District must be counted, judge rules

Joseph Salerno and Tim Alexander are in a tight race for the party's nomination and a chance to challenge U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew in the general election.

2024 Election U.S. House

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. An Atlantic County judge decided Friday that about 1,900 mail-in ballots that election officials opened too early must be counted.

An Atlantic County Superior Court judged ruled Friday that 1,909 vote-by-mail ballots in Tuesday's primary election must be counted despite having been opened too early by election officials. The outstanding ballots have delayed the resolution of the Democratic primary for U.S. House in the 2nd District. Unofficial results have Joseph Salerno leading Tim Alexander by 412 votes.

Judge Michael J. Blee's order argues that state laws for mail-in ballots were designed to leave as much room as possible to ensure that votes be counted, ABC News reported.

"It is well settled in the state of New Jersey that election laws should be construed liberally," Blee said.

The status of the mail-in ballots came into question because it was discovered that the Atlantic County Board of Elections had opened them prematurely in early May, well before the legally required window of within five days of an election. The purpose of opening them had been to put timestamps on the outer and inner envelopes of the ballots, but the machines used for this processes sliced open both ballots.

Democrats in Atlantic County argued that it was a mistake and said none of the actual ballots were removed from their envelopes. Republican officials questioned whether the ballots had been opened to speed up the vote count. GOP leaders were not requesting the votes be abandoned, but instead sought an investigation and a requirement to inform the voters whose ballots were affected. The number of outstanding ballots is slightly higher than what initially had been reported — at least 1,100 Democratic ballots and 700 Republican ballots.

Blee was assigned to resolve the matter to break a 2-2 deadlock among Republicans and Democrats on the county Board of Elections.

"Admittedly what happened this election was sloppy," Blee said. "It was an inadvertent error. It was an inexcusable error."

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

Salerno, a businessman and attorney, leads Alexander, a civil rights attorney, in a race with four candidates who ran to challenge Republican Jeff Van Drew, a former Democrat who switched parties in 2019. Earlier this week, the Press of Atlantic City reported Alexander had tallied more mail-in ballots by about eight percentage points. If the only outstanding votes left are the ballots that were opened too early, their inclusion likely still leaves Alexander shy of Salerno. Alexander was the Democratic nominee in 2022 and lost to Van Drew in the general election.

Election officials have not indicated how soon a winner will be declared in the Democratic primary now that Blee's ruling will allow the ballots to be counted.

The irregularity is a possible signal of the scrutiny that will be exercised around mail-in ballots nationwide for the general election in November.