The Atlantic County Clerk sent a batch of incorrect ballots on Oct. 19 to 554 voters in Hamilton Township, which may force a special election in the District 3 freeholder race if no one wins by a large margin Tuesday.
Election officials were in court for an emergency session before Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez on Monday afternoon, soon after the mistake affecting only the District 3 freeholder race was discovered.
According to testimony, 335 voters in Hamilton received ballots that mistakenly left off the District 3 freeholder race between Republican Andrew Parker and Democrat Thelma Witherspoon.
Another 219 ballots were sent to township voters that included the District 3 race, but shouldn't have done so.
Assistant County Clerk Michael Sommers testified that the State Voter Registration System, a computer system used by all clerks in the state, generated incorrect ballot forms for those 554 voters, out of 40,655 registered voters in Freeholder District 3.
Those affected are voters who registered, moved into the county or reactivated their registrations after the first large number of ballots went out in September.
About 200 of the 554 have already sent back their ballots, which have been processed and removed from the envelopes that would identify them. So there is no way to offer correct ballots to them, officials said.
Mendez decided the only thing he could do was order poll workers to offer correct provisional ballots to anyone affected who shows up at the polls Tuesday, either to drop off their vote-by-mail ballots or to vote provisionally.
"This is a horrendous situation," said Mendez, who appeared almost speechless at times when he first heard the full extent of the problem. "It does not reflect well on the Clerk of Atlantic County."
He said he understood it was a mistake, but "ultimately the buck has to stop somewhere. That's how I see it, and that's how upset I am."
Sommers said his office had spot checked some addresses in the list from the State Voter Registration System, but not all.
"What we reviewed was accurate," Sommers said, so he assumed the entire list must be accurate. It turned out not to be the case, especially for Hamilton Township."
Mendez said New Jersey case law discourages segregating ballots in any way, so did not order that the Board of Elections hold aside affected ballots it receives in the future through mail or drop boxes.
"We'll see what happens with the results," Mendez said, adding he is hoping someone wins by a large margin to avoid the need for a special election.
The Atlantic County Board of Freeholders District 3 covers all of Egg Harbor Township and part of Hamilton Township, said Deputy County Clerk Michael Sommers.
County Clerk Ed McGettigan did not participate in the court proceedings, and has directed all questions regarding elections to Sommers.