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Judge denies Atlantic City mayor's request for "wholesale" pre-Election Day ballot review

The campaign committee of Mayor Don Guardian had asked a Superior Court judge to order the county board of elections to allow challengers to be present when thousands of vote by mail ballots the campaign has questioned are counted.

Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez hears a challenge from the campaign of Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, Nov. 6, 2017.
Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez hears a challenge from the campaign of Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, Nov. 6, 2017.Read moreAMY ROSENBERG / Staff

ATLANTIC CITY — Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez denied a request Monday by the campaign of Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian to be present when the county's 6,100 vote-by-mail ballots are reviewed by staff of the Board of Elections to allow the campaign to challenge ballots it contends were improperly submitted.

Mendez said nothing in the law requires a "wholesale" review by official challengers of all mail-in ballots prior to the ballots being processed by the board at the staff level. The staff, one Democrat and one Republican, will flag any issues for voting by the board, which it said was the procedure in prior elections.

Campaign challengers can submit objections to particular voters based on residency or other issues, Mendez noted.

The judge, in denying the request, ordered the Board of Elections to preserve all mail-in documentation for any possible post-election challenge and said he would request that the board and its staff pay particular attention to "whether there was evidence of undisclosed assistance."

The ruling one day before Election Day was a blow to the Republican incumbent, who is facing a tight race against Democratic City Councilman Frank Gilliam  and in the last week raised what the campaign contends is evidence of widespread ballot fraud. At least 1,400 mail-in ballots were received from Atlantic City.

Gilliam has dismissed Guardian's claims a week before the election as "desperation" tactics designed to suppress legitimate votes. He said his campaign is not overseeing any vote-by-mail operation.

The board met Monday evening to review ballots flagged by its staff. Representatives for Guardian asked the board to rule on 101 voters registered to a needle exchange program in Atlantic City, as well as voters whose sample ballot was returned, and those they contend were not properly registered. The board voted to refer the challenges to the superintendent of elections for further investigation.

Another pile of voters  — a list 61 pages long — was challenged at the board meeting by Guardian representatives as a block for having undisclosed assistance, but the board unanimously voted to bounce those back to the challengers for more specificity on individual voters.

In papers filed Sunday, a lawyer representing Guardian and his three City Council running mates said the campaign had uncovered evidence that demonstrates "troublesome and questionable vote-by-mail harvesting operations in the Atlantic City municipal elections," with what it claims is "documented proof of vote buying, bribery, and illegal messenger operations."

The Inquirer reported last week that Guardian hired two private detectives who sent an informant with a voice recorder into Gilliam's campaign headquarters on a recent Saturday seeking $30 to be a messenger for a voter. He said he later turned the ballot over to a Democratic operative, Craig Callaway, rather than delivering the ballot to the voter as required by law. He and others were paid $30.

Callaway, a well-known Democratic operative whose exhaustive vote-by-mail operations have turned elections in Atlantic City, has denied he has done anything improper, and said the vote-by-mail efforts are legal and not being coordinated with the Gilliam campaign. He noted that in 2013 his efforts were on behalf of Guardian.

On Thursday, the Board of Elections began discussing some ballots that had been flagged by staff, including ones with questionable or missing signatures. But the board announced that the full processing of the ballots would be initially done by two staff members, one Republican and one Democrat, outside of a public meeting.

The complaint naming the four-member election board contended that its actions violated the Open Public Meetings Act and asked Mendez to order the board to allow the challengers to "review all the vote-by-mail ballots and materials and assert challenges where necessary."