Passaic County assignment judge Ernest Caposela invalidated 22 mail-in votes in the 2nd Ward election case on Friday morning in a contest that was narrowing decided by just 20 votes.
The judge invalidated 2 votes that were challenged on the basis of residency and 20 more that had faulty mail-in ballot assisters.
“I’m invalidating them, but I don’t know who they voted for,” said Caposela. The decision issued on Friday does not remove councilman Shahin Khalique nor does it crown Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman as the victor in the May 2016 contest.
“The process is still going on. We’re telling the truth, votes were illegally cast,” said Akhtaruzzaman outside of the court chamber. “This election wasn’t fair.”
Akhtaruzzaman’s side long cried foul in the 2nd Ward election and was vindicated by the judge’s move to invalidate the two dozen votes.
Encircled by a band of supporters by the sixth-floor elevator in the Passaic County Courthouse, a visibly agitated Khalique had no comments.
In the final election tally, councilman Shahin Khalique had 1,401 votes and former councilman Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman received 1,381. Khalique’s victory was secured using 1,010 mail-in ballots. Every candidate in the race alleged Khalique was manipulating mail-in ballots and securing them using questionable methods.
The judge said if it is assumed all the disqualified votes were cast for Khalique, the vote tally would change in favor of Akhtaruzzaman. The new tally would be 1,381 for Akhtaruzzaman and 1,379 for Khalique.
“Most of these are people who said they didn’t vote,” said Akhtaruzzaman lawyer’s Susan Champion. She argued the mail-in ballots were completed at the Khalique campaign headquarters and therefore these were votes cast in the now councilman’s favor.
Caposela agreed with Champion’s assertion.
However, Khalique’s attorney John Carbone objected saying this is not the standard that can be used to judge who these voters favored. He also said the court can open up the invalidated ballots to see who these voters voted for.
The judge has scheduled court dates in July to hear Khalique’s side of the case. Carbone plans to revive 20 votes that were rejected by the Passaic County Board of Elections. He noted those votes were rejected due to signatures and that Khalique’s side will prove the signatures were valid.
The judge’s decision aligns with the recommendation of deputy attorney general Alan Stephens. He recommended 22 votes be invalidated in his brief to the court months ago. In a case that has been ongoing since September 2016, Stephens stated testimony makes it clear “fraud was afoot” in the four-way 2nd Ward race.
“I really want to get this done,” said Caposela. He scheduled a court date for July 31st, 2017. The judge had previously scheduled today’s decision for July 7th, but later moved it up by two weeks.
Some in local Paterson political circles hoped the judge would render a final decision in the long drawn-out case particularly prior to the reorganization meeting of the City Council. The council will vote to select a new president. This year’s presidency vote is significant as indicted mayor Jose “Joey” Torres is battling corruption charges.
Torres, if convicted, will vacate his post. This post will then be temporarily filled by the council president until an interim mayor is picked. So far the favorites for the council presidency are councilwomen Maritza Davila and Ruby Cotton. Davila is allied to Khalique which makes today’s court decision a favorable to her as the July 1st presidency vote approaches.
Khalique is likely a guaranteed vote for Davila.