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The Ocean County Courthouse in Toms River, New Jersey. (Photo: Ocean County).

Judge will wait until last minute to decide Ocean election conflict

Wellerson sets hearing to decide if remote voting will be allowed less than 24 hours after polls open

By David Wildstein, June 23 2022 2:56 pm

A Superior Court Judge won’t hear a challenge to the voting procedures in a hotly-contested race for Ocean County Democratic chairman until the day before the election, leaving the race in flux as both sides complete the final week of the campaign.

Terrance Turnbach, who is taking on incumbent Wyatt Earp, had filed a lawsuit on Thursday seeking to block the use of remote voting because party by-laws require in-person voting only in party leadership elections.

The polls open for the Earp vs. Turnbach race at 1 PM on June 29, but the judge, Craig Wellerson, won’t hold a hearing on Turnbach’s bid to restrain Ocean County Democrats from voting remotely until 1:30 PM on June 28.

Earp says about 40 county committee members have already registered to vote remotely, mostly out of concern for Covid or conflicting family commitments.

The five-day wait imposed by Wellerson leaves both candidates without a clear understanding of what the Election Day voting rules will be until hours before the voting is scheduled to begin.

Regardless of Wellerson’s ruling, time is quickly running out.

If the loser in the lawsuit wants to appeal Wellerson’s decision, it might either force a state appellate judge to hear the case within a few hours or postpone the election entirely.

The matter might already be settled law.

The day before the July 2020 election for Mercer County Democratic chair, election law guru Angelo Genova filed a lawsuit to prohibit the “tele-town hall” style election that permitted county committee members to cast their ballots by telephone.

Genova represented two county committee members backing Ewing Councilman David Schroth in his challenge to the incumbent county chair, Janice Mironov.  He argued that Mercer Democrats never amended their bylaws to permit anything other than in-person voting.

Mironov’s attorneys, Daniel Antonelli and Jarrid Kantor, argued that other county organizations had done the same thing and that about two-thirds of Mercer county committee members had already signed up.

Less than two hours before voting was to start, Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson allowed the election to go on, saying the party organization “did embrace the statute.”

But the circumstances were not identical.  At the time of the election, Gov. Phil Murphy had declared a state health emergency due to COVID-19.

“In a virtual setting, you attempt to do the best you can,” Jacobson said.

Sluggish judges have become a recurring problem in New Jersey elections, especially when their tardiness serves to disenfranchise voters and create an appearance, albeit inadvertent, that judges are putting their thumbs on the scales.

In a court challenge of a November 2020 election for the South Toms River Borough Council, it took appellate court judges more than six months to arrive at a decision.  Too late to hold the election concurrent with the 2021 general, the delay left the seat unfilled until a March 2022 special election.

A court challenge to the eligibility of a Paterson mayoral candidate in the May 2022 non-partisan election resulted in a huge delay of ballots being mailed.  Some counties missed the deadline to mail overseas and military ballots as they waited on judges to rule on primary election petition challenges this year.

It took nearly a year for the courts to rule on Morris County’s refusal to print bi-lingual ballots in Dover, where 70% of the population is Hispanic.

In April, state Appellate Court Judge Hany A. Mawla scheduled the first round of briefs in a challenge to nominating petitions for the June 7 GOP township council primary on June 10 in a case that will either result in a do-over primary in August or a dramatic alteration of the state’s nominating petition process.

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