The winner of the city’s 2nd Ward election may not be clear until after more than 100 provisional ballots are counted by Passaic County election officials.
Incumbent Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman received 1,346 and challenger Shahin Khalique received 1,386 votes in Tuesday’s election.
The incumbent is 40 votes behind Khalique.
The Passaic County Superintendent of Elections Sherine El-Abd said 104 provisional ballots were cast on Tuesday. She said her office is “thoroughly” reviewing each of the provisional ballots.
Provisional ballots are used by voters whose names do not appear in books at the polling places or their identities are in question. Voters who are marked as having requested mail-in ballots, but tell poll workers they did not apply for it, did not receive it, or received it but did not return it also use provisional ballots.
El-Abd said she hopes to get the provisional ballots counted by Monday. Three piles are created when provisional ballots are being counted. First with provisional cast by registered voters which will be counted like other ballots. Second made up of ballots cast by unregistered voters who will be registered. And third pile of “questionable” ballots which includes non-ward residents casting ballots.
The questionable ballots will be reviewed and discussed by the Passaic County Board of Elections to determine whether to count it or discard it.
There’s also the large number of mail-in votes secured by Akhtaruzzaman and Khalique which prompted both sides to complain the other’s supporters were not registered properly or did not reside in the ward.
Khalique took in 1,009 mail-in votes while Akhtaruzzaman received 523. Khalique finished last place at the polls while Akhtaruzzaman finished first.
Akhtaruzzaman’s campaign challenged 77 of Khalique’s mail-in ballots on election night based on address.
“They did challenge some ballots,” said John Currie, chairman of the Passaic County Board of Elections. He said the challenges lacked “physical evidence” like utility bills, phone bills, and or driver’s license to nullify the ballots.
“When you challenge a ballot you have to have exact proof,” said Currie.
Akhtaruzzaman’s campaign said the evidence for at least 65 fraudulent mail-in ballots were submitted on Friday to the superintendent of elections office.
Challenger Aslon Goow’s campaign submitted names of 40 voters who allegedly voted illegally, said the former councilman on Wednesday afternoon.
“We have received credible information that people who are not residents of the Second Ward voted and that people who are not citizens voted,” read a letter from Akhtaruzzaman’s attorney Theodore Kyles to the Passaic County election officials.
“It appears as though there will be some valid complaints,” said El-Abd.
Kyles requested election officials conduct a “thorough investigation” into voter fraud complaints in the 2nd Ward. His letter also urged election officials to delay certifying a winner in the election until after the investigation has been completed.
City clerk Sonia Gordon said her office certifies the winners of the municipal elections. She said on Wednesday night she will have to consult with the city’s attorney. She said generally she has to certify candidates within the time frame required by state statute unless a judge issues an order directing her not to certify the winner of a specific election.
Gordon cited an example from 2012. Goow obtained a court order that prevented Akhtaruzzaman from being certified as the winner of that year’s 2nd Ward election.
“Councilman Akhtaruzzaman needs to go through the motions to try and hold on to his seat; however the windows are closing with every passing minute,” said Khalique. He said his campaign is cooperating with El-Abd’s office to clear any questions.
“Hopefully soon I will be certified as the winner and I invite the councilman to join me so together we can make the 2nd Ward a better place,” said Khalique. Kyles’ letter expresses hope that the incumbent does not have to file in court to force an investigation and put off certifying a winner.
The other challengers in the race Goow received 689 votes and Eddie Gonzalez received 435. Goow and Gonzalez each received 37 mail-in votes.
Goow, a former three-term councilman, described the pernicious impact mail-in ballots have had in the past three 2nd Ward elections. He is not alone on bemoaning the large scale use of mail-in ballots in the 2nd Ward elections. School board member Errol Kerr described it as a “cancer” that is consuming local politics.
Tom Fuscaldo, a 2nd Ward resident, thought it wrong for candidates to win using mail-in voting without capturing a majority of in-person votes.
The large number of mail-in ballots triggered an investigation from El-Abd’s office. She said she has yet to conclude that investigation.
“It just got complicated,” said Goow of the post-election battle between Khalique and Akhtaruzzaman. “Clearly, this is going to court.”
“I got the highest number of votes at the polls,” said Akhtaruzzaman on Wednesday night. “The election is not over yet, it’s just beginning.”