ATLANTIC CITY - There's a sickness surrounding the latest ballot-box scandal in this seaside gambling resort, where elections and allegations of corruption often go hand-in-hand.

With the primary election for mayor of the nation's second-largest gambling market hours away, absentee ballots designed for the ill and shut-ins flooded into Atlantic County election offices - hundreds and hundreds of them.

That has set off alarm bells in Atlantic City, where absentee ballots often determine the winner long after the last voting machine is shut down.

In a city of fewer than 23,000 registered voters, workers for the three Democratic mayoral candidates applied for 865 so-called messenger ballots, designed to be picked up for handicapped people or those too sick to get to a poll on election day.

Mayor Lorenzo Langford's campaign manager, Wilbur Banks, said there was no way so many people could be unable to go to a polling place.

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

In comparison, Newark - New Jersey's largest city, with more than 134,000 registered voters - had 23 applications for messenger ballots.

The ballot brawl might seem silly, if not for the outsized role absentee ballots have come to play in Atlantic City politics. In most places, voters head to the polls on Election Day, voting machines tally the results, and a winner is known within an hour or two of the close of voting.

But this is not most places. Over the years, associates of Craig Callaway, the former City Council president now serving a federal prison term for bribery, have perfected the art of collecting and delivering absentee ballots.

Their efforts often determine the result of elections here and in neighboring Pleasantville, where candidates can go to bed on election night thinking they have won, only to be disappointed by lunch the next day.

That means today's voting-machine results probably won't determine a winner. There could be 2,400 absentee ballots returned by the time polls close at 8 p.m.

In Atlantic City, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 11-1, taking the Democratic primary usually means election in the fall.

Langford, facing a tough fight for renomination against a city councilman and a former city police officer, filed a lawsuit last week asking a judge to impound the messenger ballots. Superior Court Judge Valerie Armstrong denied the request.

"If this were a grand jury, there's more than enough evidence here for somebody to be indicted," said Jonathan Diego, Langford's lawyer.

His campaign filed paperwork with the court accusing workers for Marty Small, a city councilman challenging Langford, of paying voters $10 apiece to fill out messenger-ballot applications.

The mayor also said his campaign hired private investigators who knocked on the doors of voters who had applied for the shut-in ballots, only to find that in 27 cases, the voter was not ill or confined at all.

Small was indicted on ballot-fraud charges in 2005 but acquitted at trial. His campaign accused the mayor of unleashing campaign workers on voters in an attempt to intimidate them.

Both sides denied any wrongdoing, and a judge yesterday refused to grant either a restraining order barring the other from illegal acts. If any happen, they should be reported to authorities, the judge said.

If Langford believes election law was violated, she ruled, he can contest the results.

The third candidate in the race, David Tayoun, has not figured prominently in the ballot dispute.

Tony Ward, a former city police officer who helped Langford investigate messenger-ballot applications, said he went to houses where voters had applied for the ballots.

"In every single instance in which I found someone home at the residence in question," he said in an affidavit, "the people who had supposedly requested the absentee messenger ballot were neither sick nor confined."