Calling him a “serial offender when it comes to botching our elections,” Atlantic County Republican Chairman Keith Davis on Wednesday called for the resignation of county Clerk Ed McGettigan over his office sending 554 incorrect ballots to Hamilton Township voters.
Davis said the mistake is likely to force a taxpayer-funded special election in the District 3 freeholder race between Republican Egg Harbor Township Committeeman Andrew Parker and Democrat Thelma Witherspoon, of Egg Harbor Township, since the two were separated by just 179 votes as of Tuesday night.
“No laws were broken, no fraud committed and no candidates were targeted,” McGettigan, a three-term Democrat up for re-election in 2021, said Wednesday. “What we have here is similar to what is going on in the presidential election nationwide. Elections involve humans and technology, and there is always room for error.”
According to testimony at an emergency hearing before Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez on Monday, 335 voters in Hamilton Township got ballots that should have included the District 3 race but didn’t, and another 219 got ballots that included the race but should not have.
“This is a horrendous situation,” Mendez said at the hearing, which was conducted virtually. “It does not reflect well on the clerk of Atlantic County.”
At the Monday hearing, Deputy 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 that were sent out Oct. 19 to those 554 voters. He said he spot checked some addresses, then assumed the entire list was correct.
“The State Voter Registration System has been an issue with all the clerks throughout the state of New Jersey, going back to the primary,” McGettigan said Wednesday.
Atlantic County Democratic Chair Michael Suleiman said it’s premature to say a special election is needed. As of Wednesday afternoon, Witherspoon led Parker by 179 votes, 12,722 to 12,543. But there are still hundreds of vote-by-mail ballots to count in Hamilton Township that came in on Election Day, as well as an unknown number of provisional ballots cast at the polls.
“I think that talk is really presumptuous,” Suleiman said. “We have got to count all the votes first.”
Suleiman also said the mistake was made on just 554 out of about 40,600 ballots sent to voters in freeholder District 3.
“The problem isn’t McGettigan at the end of the day, but the SVRS has to be updated and fixed,” Suleiman said. “It has not been purged and is not accurate.”
He said people have told him they still get ballots for their children who haven’t lived with them for years.
“Overall, besides this little hiccup in Hamilton, the election went well,” Suleiman said.
McGettigan did not participate in the hearing and has regularly referred media questions about elections to Sommers.
“I’m the captain of this ship, and I take full responsibility for everything. I’m not blaming anything on Michael,” McGettigan said of Sommers.
McGettigan didn’t appear at the hearing, he said, because Sommers was “in a confined space and needed three screens. I wasn’t comfortable sitting on top of him while he was doing his job.”
There were also problems in the July primary with how the clerk’s office printed some ballots, causing them to be misread by machines. In one case, some ballots were misread at the post office and returned to voters rather than to the Board of Elections. Other ballots were misread by scanners because bubbles filled out by voters making choices were printed on folds of the ballot, and the scanner did not read them at all.
There have been other election problems over the years related to the Clerk’s Office.
In the 2019 general election, the Clerk’s Office said its printing house misprinted bar codes that affected about half of the mail-in ballots. The bar codes could not be read by the machines at the Board of Elections, so bar code numbers had to be put in machines by hand, board Chairperson Lynn Caterson said.
In addition, Buena Vista Township’s mail-in ballots in 2019 were printed without any “bubbles” for voters to fill in to cast a vote, so new ones had to be printed and sent.
In 2016, the last time McGettigan ran, his office somehow sent an already marked vote-by-mail ballot to a voter — Atlantic City Republican Councilman Jesse Kurtz. The ballot had been filled out for several Democratic candidates.
“The most likely explanation for this mishap was that this office received a prior request for a duplicate ballot, which occurred prior to Mr. Kurtz’s arrival, and that the returned ballot was not properly segregated and was misplaced in the pile of ballots to be distributed to the future mail-in ballot requestors,’’ Sommers said in a five-page affidavit related to that case.
In the recent Hamilton Township case, about 200 of the 554 had 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 showed up at the polls Tuesday, either to drop off their vote-by-mail ballots or to vote provisionally.
Mendez 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.”