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Trenton City Hall. (Photo: City of Trenton).

Trenton North Ward runoff unlikely to be resolved before reorganization of government

Lack of quorum on council may force Murphy to appoint interim members

By Joey Fox, December 21 2022 1:07 pm

Cure letters in Trenton’s North Ward – where the December 13 runoff between Jennifer Williams and Algernon Ward is currently tied at 425 votes apiece – have until December 28 at 4:30 p.m. to arrive, a deadline that is very likely to conflict with the scheduled reorganization of Trenton’s government on January 1.

There are four cure letters outstanding in the ward, and it’s not clear how many, if any, ballots have already been cured. The deadline for the certification of the election is December 30, though it could be certified sooner depending on the status of the cure letters.

After the election is certified, one or both candidates are near-certain to file for a recount given the closeness of the result; recounts can’t be officially requested until an election is certified. Once the recount takes place, there may be further legal challenges from the losing candidate (or both candidates, if the result is still a tie).

Since it would be extremely difficult for all of those steps to happen before January 1, that puts Gov. Phil Murphy in the position of potentially having to appoint interim councilmembers so that the seven-member council has enough members to reach a quorum.

The tangle of deadlines is the result of a long series of changes and snafus dating back to September 2020, when the city council voted to move Trenton’s local elections from May to November.

In this year’s November general election, a glitch in Mercer County’s voting machines caused problems throughout Election Day and significantly delayed the counting of votes. Those delays meant that runoffs in the North and South Wards were pushed back from December 6 to December 13.

But that wasn’t all. Trenton City Clerk Brandon Garcia initially certified the top three finishers in the city’s at-large council race as the winners without a runoff, but three trailing candidates filed a lawsuit (correctly) arguing that the first-place finisher had not cleared the threshold needed to avoid a runoff. A judge agreed with them, but by then it was too late to hold their runoff in December, so it was scheduled for January 24 instead.

Even then, it would have been possible for the four ward-based councilmembers to just barely reach a quorum; the extremely close result in the North Ward threw a wrench in that, however. (The other ward runoff has a clear victor: South Ward Councilwoman-elect Jenna Figueroa Kettenburg, who defeated Damian Malave by 40 votes.)

With the cure letters, there’s also a separate concern that releasing those results independently violates New Jersey’s new election laws, which limit the disclosure of tallies when they might compromise the secrecy of the vote. 

If only two cured ballots are counted, for example, and both voted for Ward, it would be possible to tell exactly how those two voters voted. The Board of Elections could have withheld updated numbers yesterday and waited until cured ballots were tallied in order to avoid that issue – but it’s too late now.

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