ATLANTIC CITY. - Atlantic County election officials said today they will investigate a flood of applications for absentee ballots designed for shut-ins, because they suspect at least one political campaign is abusing the process.

Absentee ballots have long decided elections in Atlantic City, where the political organization of imprisoned former City Council President Craig Callaway mastered the art of collecting hundreds, if not thousands, of the ballots in recent years.

Mayor Lorenzo Langford, engaged in a tough three-way fight for the Democratic nomination in next week's primary, asked Atlantic County officials to block about 800 "messenger ballots" picked up by people for others who can't get to the polls.

Allegations of fraud have long centered on the use of such ballots in Atlantic City.

"I was shocked that that many messenger ballots had come in," Atlantic County Superintendent of Elections John Mooney told The Press of Atlantic City today. "My people are preparing to investigate these messenger ballots individually."

Mooney told the newspaper his office conducts investigations only when he believes there is an abuse of the process. He said the number of applications that came in to his office yesterday was more than enough to raise concern.

County attorney James Ferguson said today the county is also concerned about the high number of messenger ballots requested.

"Personally and professionally, we believe it's probably an abuse of the process and it certainly needs to be corrected," Ferguson said.

Langford's campaign manager, Wilbur Banks, said there is no way that many people are unable to come to the polls next week.

"We have a major health emergency here in Atlantic City if we have this many sick and confined residents," he told the newspaper.

Councilman Marty Small, one of Langford's opponents, said he had not asked Callaway's allies to collect ballots for him. When contacted by the newspaper, Callaway family members deferred questions to Small.