1,900 New Jersey ballots whose envelopes were opened early must be counted, judge rules

FILE - A mail-in election ballot is positioned in the mailbox where it arrived in Rutherford, N.J., on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. A state judge on Friday, June 7, 2024, ruled that some 1,900 mail ballots in a New Jersey county whose envelopes were prematurely opened should be accepted and counted. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey, File)

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A state judge on Friday ruled that some 1,900 mail ballots in a New Jersey county whose envelopes were prematurely opened should be accepted and counted.

Superior Court Judge Michael J. Blee ruled from the bench in the case involving 1,909 mail ballots in southern New Jersey's Atlantic County. The order could decide the outcome of the Democratic primary in the race for the state’s 2nd Congressional District, where businessman Joe Salerno holds a 400-vote lead over attorney Tim Alexander in unofficial results.

Blee said the ballots should be tallied because state laws should be interpreted to allow for the greatest scope of the public's participation.

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

But the judge had sharp words for how the circumstances — the details of which remained murky even after two board of elections officials testified on Friday — arose.

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

The issue revolved around state law permitting county election officials to open mail ballots five days before an election day.

In the case before the court, the inner envelopes containing ballots were sliced open much earlier, though it was not entirely clear how much earlier, than the five-day window the law allows for. Blee said the law is “silent” as to what should be done in such a case and pointed to case law determining that judges should aim to allow for voter participation.

The court heard testimony from two elections officials Friday who said the ballots themselves were not removed at that time or otherwise tampered with. It was unclear why the ballots were opened early. The officials described how both Democratic and Republican officials are present when the ballots are being handled.

Democratic officials earlier described what happened as a mistake, while Republican officials said the opening could have been done intentionally to speed up ballot counting.

The court heard Friday that at some point while the ballots’ envelopes were being sliced open prematurely, officials figured out how to turn off the slicer so the envelopes could be time-stamped but not opened.

One of the officials described the process of opening ballot envelopes as “a little bit chaotic," with too many workers in his opinion sorting ballots.

But the irregularities were limited to the inner envelopes containing ballots being cut open by a processing machine, and not the ballots themselves, the two Atlantic County election officials told the court.

The case came to the court because the county Board of Elections split evenly 2-2 between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats sought to accept the ballots, while Republicans wanted to reject them, according to the judge.

The wrangling over fewer than 2,000 ballots suggests how carefully both parties are paying attention to the voting this year and how local election offices are under intense scrutiny.