‘These voters were disenfranchised’

Mercer County residents sue election officials for allegedly violating their civil rights

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Eight residents are suing Mercer County election officials for allegedly violating their civil rights during the 2022 general election.

They claim their votes were tossed out over technicalities. The lawsuit, which was filed in Mercer County Superior Court on Feb. 14, also claims that votes in the 2022 general election may not have been properly counted.

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The lawsuit was filed by Bethany Murranko, Mark Murranko, Michael McKitish, Joanne McKitish, Jeremy Whaley, David Matticoli, Lisa Werdel and Grace Asagra Stanley.

The eight voters claim they were “disenfranchised because their votes were invalidated,” according to the lawsuit. They were required to cast provisional ballots, which were later thrown out.

They have been joined by Mercer County residents John Muka and Patricia Johnson, who were official challengers. A challenger is allowed to observe the voting process and to observe the counting of votes after the polls closed. Muka and Johnson claim they were prevented from watching the vote-counting process.

Collectively, the voters and the challengers are suing the Mercer County Board of Elections and its four commissioners/members; former Superintendent of Elections Nathaniel Walker; current Superintendent of Elections Walker Worthy; and Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello.

At issue are malfunctioning electronic polling books that voters must sign to cast a ballot; malfunctioning tabulating machines; and improperly trained poll workers at the polling places.

Since similar issues allegedly arose in the Nov. 7, 2023 general election, the lawsuit seeks to have an independent monitor to observe the 2024 primary and general elections to ensure compliance with state election law.

The lawsuit also would require Mercer County election officials to have a plan in place if the equipment fails, and to properly train the poll workers accordingly in future elections.

The voters alleged in the lawsuit that they were registered to vote and should have been able to use regular ballots to vote. But because of malfunctioning equipment, several voters were told that they had “already voted by machine.”

They were allowed to cast provisional ballots, however, a provisional ballot is used when there is a question about a voter’s eligibility. It is sent to the Mercer County Board of Elections, which examines the ballot and determines whether it should be counted.

Their provisional ballots were rejected. They were among at least 759 Mercer County voters who cast provisional ballots because of malfunctioning voting equipment, and whose ballots were rejected.

“There is no circumstance under which voters should have been instructed to vote provisionally because a machine was not working,” according to the lawsuit.

“These voters were disenfranchised,” it said.

The New Jersey District Board Training manual states that a county Board of Elections should have an emergency voting plan, but the Mercer County Board of Elections did not have a backup plan in case the machines did not work, the lawsuit said. The lack of a plan and proper training of poll workers led to confusion throughout the day on Election Day in 2022.

Voters were told to – come back later, to vote provisionally, vote by emergency ballot or vote by regular ballot – depending on their polling place and the time of day when they arrived, the lawsuit said.

It was also alleged that Mercer County officials did not preserve the chain of custody of ballots after the polls closed at 8 p.m. on Election Day in 2022. State law sets out specific procedures to maintain election integrity and to prevent ballot tampering.

Some of the ballot bags were not secured properly, and the arrival of ballots from some polling places in Mercer County were not logged or recorded, the lawsuit said.

The removal of ballots from the tabulators to the ballot bags was done haphazardly without any regard for maintaining the chain of custody, the lawsuit said.

In fact, about 1,500 ballots were found in tabulating machines six days after the Nov. 8, 2022 election, the lawsuit said. The machines were searched following a court order.

Muka and Johnson, the challengers who should have been able to watch the ballots being counted after the polls closed, were unable to do so.

Muka said he was seated more than 30 feet away from where the ballots were being counted. He was unable to determine anything about the process, according to the lawsuit.

Johnson said she was told that the building where the votes were being counted was closing and that no more tabulations would take place until the next day. She left the building between 11:30 p.m. and midnight, but ballot images showed the tabulators were running after midnight, the lawsuit said.

When the voting machines were searched for missing ballots per a court order, they were opened with the bins facing away from the observers, Johnson said. It was not possible to see if there were ballots left in the machine.

“The final numbers for the Nov. 8, 2022 election are unknown and unknowable. The numbers Mercer County certified differ from those it reported to the state voter history file by thousands of votes. This discrepancy remains unresolved,” the lawsuit said.

Mercer County certified and counted 60,727 Election Day ballots but only reported 55,858 ballots to the state voter history file as of Dec. 2, 2022. This is a discrepancy of 4,869 votes, the lawsuit said.

The Mercer County Board of Elections rejected 1,288 provisional ballots, many or most of which should have been cast and accepted as regular or emergency ballots instead of provisional ballots, the lawsuit said.

Mercer County apparently failed to count 2,528 mail-in ballots. The county reported receiving and accepting 28,040 mail-in ballots to the State of New Jersey, but it certified receiving only 25,512 mail-in ballots.

As a result, the eight voters sustained damages due to Mercer County election officials’ actions and inactions, which deprived them of the right to vote and deprived them of the right to fair elections, the lawsuit said.

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