Ballots went missing in at least two Mercer County, New Jersey communities this week. They'd been recovered by mid-to-late Thursday — though local leaders say they still don’t understand what happened.
It's the latest embarrassing error for a county where all voting machines' optical scanners failed to work Tuesday — another mystery officials say they still haven't solved, and one that's delayed counting ballots well past Election Night. It's unclear how directly the two issues are related.
Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried told residents late Wednesday he’d just been informed ballots were missing from one district in his township. Mid-Thursday, he said he’d gotten word from county election officials that they’d been found, but he didn’t know how or what went wrong in the first place.
Robbinsville officials had yet to be able to get anyone from county offices on the phone, Fried said.
“I don't think that anything nefarious was done,” he said. “But I do think there was a complete lack of competence.”
I don't think that anything nefarious was done ... but I do think there was a complete lack of competence.
Princeton's municipal officials said Thursday morning that ballots were missing from three districts there. Township Clerk Delores Williams said machines used in the municipality would be opened up at 1 p.m. Thursday, but she didn't know the status of those from any other towns. Deputy Clerk Dawn Mount said the township was eventually notified at 3:15 p.m. that the ballots had been found — but she didn't know how or whether they'd been located in the machines.
On Tuesday, optical scanners in Dominion voting machines throughout Mercer County were unable to scan ballots, and Mercer County clerk officials said they intended to have ballots counted after polls closed at a central board of elections office instead. The board includes representatives of both major parties.
At the time of the voting machine problem, both the state Republican and Democratic party committees issued statements reassuring voters that the chain of custody would be protected, and every vote would be counted — even if it took longer than usual.
In a statement on Facebook addressing the voting machine issue on Wednesday, County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello said that while her office did not receive any particular indication of wrongdoing, she would be working with the county prosecutor to investigate whether the problem was based on error or "intentionally done to create chaos and distrust in the election system."
"At the end of the day, as county clerk, I must certify the election results so I have an interest in the integrity of our system," she wrote.
As of late mid-Thursday, neither the county’s website nor Sollami Covello’s Facebook account had yet addressed the problem with missing ballots.
Fried had expressed his frustration online: “This is truly unbelievable in 2022.”
He told Gothamist that Robbinsville officials also had concerns about the chain of custody after the voting machine problem. Typically, paper ballots would be taken to the municipal building before being sent to county offices, he said. Instead, they went straight to county offices Tuesday night.
The issue could affect multiple local races. Races for the 3rd and 12th Congressional Districts were called on election night, even without the Mercer votes tallied.
“I'm not a conspiracy theorist — but I do believe this was not good,” Fried said. “And we need to do significantly better.”
Last year, he said. Mercer machines jammed because of an error with printed ballots’ sizes.
Fried, a Republican, said he was worried incidents like those in Mercer would erode voter confidence. Philip Swibinski, a spokesman for the state Democratic Committee, said he shared that concern, but was gratified to see both parties trying to shore up confidence about the integrity of the process.
“That’s part of the reason why we wanted to make a statement on Tuesday … imploring people in Mercer County to go cast their ballots and not be discouraged by anything they had heard,” he said.
The state Democratic Committee was monitoring the issue of the missing ballots but wasn’t directly involved in addressing it, Swibinski said.
Fried had written in his messages to residents and Robbinsville officials that he “will not rest until we get to the bottom of this unconscionable mishap, and we will not consider the 2022 election over in Robbinsville until every single ballot is counted and done so securely."
Calls made on Thursday morning to the Mercer County clerk; the county board of elections and superintendent of elections; and the state Republican Committee haven’t yet been returned.
This story has been updated to reflect statements from Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried and Princeton officials about ballots being recovered.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the proportion of votes counted in Mercer County by Thursday and where results were being posted.