The saga of a 2022 township committee election in Mendham Township ended at last today, with former Committeeman Thomas Baio voluntarily dismissing his election challenge against Lauren Spirig, the Democrat who defeated him, after a truncated Superior Court hearing.
“I am absolutely thrilled that this very long process is over, and now we can focus on the business of serving the community,” Spirig said after the hearing had concluded. “I’m excited that democracy prevailed.”
Spirig defeated Baio, a first-term Republican committeeman, in last year’s election by a two-vote margin, 1,473 to 1,471. A recount was held at Baio’s request, but it didn’t change the result, instead removing one vote from Baio’s count and increasing Spirig’s margin to three votes. (The election was for two seats, with the other seat going to Republican Tracey Moreen, the first-place finisher.)
Shortly after the recount concluded, Baio filed a new lawsuit challenging Spirig’s victory on the basis that 33 voters, many of them young voters, should have their votes invalidated because they are no longer full-time residents of Mendham Township. That was the case that was heard today, with Superior Court Judge Stuart Minkowitz aiming to determine whether enough invalid votes were cast to alter the outcome of the election.
The hearing was held in-person and during work hours, so few of the challenged voters were present to testify. Instead, the four witnesses who testified before the hearing was abruptly ended were all neighbors of the challenged voters; each of them variously attested to seeing their neighbors move or noticing their houses lying empty.
After those initial four witnesses testified, Baio himself came up to the stand, describing how he first came to the conclusion that a significant number of votes were cast by voters who allegedly no longer live in Mendham. He said that after late-arriving mail ballots put Spirig in the lead, he began investigating voters on social media, through property listings, and on paid search websites to determine whether they were still Mendham residents.
Midway through Baio’s testimony, however, Minkowitz called a brief recess after a number of objections from the Democratic side; when the court returned to session, Baio’s attorney, Tim Howes, requested a voluntary dismissal of the case.
“After a couple of evidential rulings, I … realized that we were just going to be spinning our wheels for the rest of the afternoon,” Howes, who is also the chairman of the Somerset GOP, said after the hearing. “I thought the fair thing to do, the stand-up thing to do, was to advise my client to voluntarily dismiss the case… I could see where it was going.”
Howes noted, though, that while today’s case is done and Spirig will remain a committeewoman, he may seek future action to update Mendham Township’s voter rolls.
“We’re going to request that the commissioner of registration look into some of these [voters], and if they determine that they’re not residents, that’s one thing; if it turns out they’re residents, then we’ll accept that,” he said.
Morris County Democratic Chair Amalia Duarte, whose child was among the 33 voters targeted in the challenge, expressed gratitude for the outcome and castigated Republicans for subjecting the township’s voters to such a drawn-out legal process.
“This was an awful thing for our community to go through,” Duarte said. “I hope that anyone else thinking about this, going forward, won’t do it. Don’t put anyone through this. The right to vote is sacred, and our young people should be supported.”