The Morris Township 2019 committee election: And the winner is…

Challenger William 'Bud' Ravitz, left, and incumbent Peter Mancuso, right, listen at court hearing about their close 2019 Morris Township committee race. Seated between them are Ravitz' wife, Lee Schwartzberg, and Mancuso lawyer Timothy Howes. Photo by Kevin Coughlin, Jan. 6, 2020.
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…to be determined.

Peter Mancuso, a 15-vote winner in the November 2019 election for Morris Township committee, and challenger William “Bud” Ravitz sat in the historic courtroom of the Morris County Courthouse in Morristown for more than an hour Monday listening to lawyers argue whether rejected ballots should be counted.

They’ll all return on Jan. 21, 2020.

STICKY CASE: Morris County Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz hears ‘Gluegate’ case, Jan. 6, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Superior Court Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz wants to hear from voters whose unsealed provisional ballots were rejected by the Morris County Board of Elections.

In the meantime, Mancuso, 82, will be sworn in Tuesday to his seventh term on the Township’s governing body. He’s the lone Republican in what until recently was an all-GOP committee.

If Ravitz, 58, overturns the results, it will be the first time in memory that Democrats hold all five seats.

In a lawsuit filed last month, Ravitz contended faulty envelopes provided by the county were to blame for many of the rejected ballots: “Glue-gate” disenfranchised voters who could have swung the outcome of the race, his argument goes.

From left, lawyer Rajiv Prakh and state Deputy Attorneys-General George Cohen and Craig Keiser argue whether to recount rejected ballots in Morris Township committee election, Jan. 6, 2020, Photo by Kevin Coughlin

But defective glue may be impossible to prove, the judge said. Regardless, he asserted that election laws should be construed liberally, to protect citizens’ voting rights.

“It’s got to be whether or not there was clear intent of the voter to cast that ballot in the manner that was appropriate under the statute. And that’s really what’s going to be relevant” in deciding whether to count rejected ballots, Minkowitz said.

Some 42 provisional ballots–nearly one-fourth of all provisional ballots cast in the Township on Nov. 5–were rejected.

Ravitz’ lawsuit includes affidavits from 16 of those voters, who contend they followed proper procedures yet had difficulty sealing their ballots.

Attorney Rajiv Prakh, representing Ravitz, seven of the rejected voters, and the state Democratic Committee, now must round up as many of the 42 rejected voters as possible for the Jan. 21 hearing. Additional court time is scheduled for Jan. 22.

The judge will try to ascertain which ballots merit counting; if the number is large enough to potentially tip the balance to Ravitz, the case will continue.

“The outcome of the election very well could change,” Ravitz said after the hearing.

Mancuso said he was looking forward to taking the oath of office on Tuesday. “The rest is up to the courts, and whatever the will was of the residents of Morris Township,” he said.

TO COUNT OR NOT TO COUNT…

If the provisional ballots don’t yield a winner, Minkowitz could consider counting 10 mail-in ballots, also rejected as unsealed.

If still another tie-breaker were needed, there is another rejected ballot, involving a disputed voter signature.

Morris Township Committeeman Peter Mancuso listens at hearing in Morristown, Jan. 6, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Nobody has alleged vote-tampering. In court, there was near-unanimity that poll workers had secured the ballots in bags as required. Mancuso lawyer Timothy Howes, who is new to the case, asked for a chance to examine the ballots before conceding the point.

Ravitz’ suit lists the Board of Elections and unspecified election officials as defendants. And it lodges a Civil Rights complaint against Morris County Clerk Ann Grossi for allegedly depriving citizens of their voting rights by furnishing shoddy envelopes.

Morris Township Committee candidate William ‘Bud’ Ravitz and his wife, Lee Schwartzberg, listen during court hearing on his election challenge, Jan. 6 , 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Courts have ruled that Civil Rights complaints should not be lumped together with election challenges, countered Grossi’s lawyer, John Carbone.  

The judge said Prakh should file a written response if he insists on combining the two matters.

The Board of Elections was represented Monday by state Deputy Attorneys-General George Cohen and Craig Keiser. Attorney Scott Salmon was there for the Morris County Democratic committee.

Grossi and county Deputy Clerk John Wojtaszek attended, and County Elections Administrator Dale Kramer testified briefly.

From left, Morris Township Committeeman Peter Mancuso, Morris County Deputy Clerk John Wojtasczek, county Elections Administrator Dale Kramer, and county Clerk Ann Grossi at Superior Court hearing for Morris Township election challenge, Jan. 6, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

This election already has had two recounts.

Mancuso led by 48 votes on Election Night. That was close enough to spur a count of provisional ballots and last-minute mail-in votes, which narrowed the lead to 13.  Mancuso gained two votes on Nov. 25 when everything except the rejected ballots got recounted.

A cumbersome state law forced many voters to file provisional ballots.

It mandated that anyone who voted by mail in the previous election must vote that way again, unless the voter specifically opted out of that process. When prior mail-in voters attempted to use voting machines, poll workers intervened, directing them to submit provisional ballots.

Superior Court Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz hears testimony from Morris County Elections Administrator Dale Kramer, Jan. 6, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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