BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclair’s swearing-in of its new mayor and council will take place on July 1 as planned, after a judge denied an injunction to stop the winning candidates in the May 12 municipal elections from taking office until rejected ballots could be counted.
Fifteen Montclair residents, including mayoral election runner-up Renee Baskerville, filed a complaint on May 29 asking Essex County officials to count votes in Montclair’s mail-in-only election that were rejected by the county.
The judge allowed that challenge to proceed, and scheduled a hearing for September.
The suit also sought to postpone the July 1 swearing-in of the mayor and council until a recount is conducted. Mayor-elect Sean Spiller filed a motion to be named in the suit as a defendant on June 10.
According to records from the county clerk’s office, 674 ballots from Montclair were delivered but not counted, either because they were postmarked after May 12 or because they were received after the May 14 deadline set by state law. Another 219 ballots were rejected due to problems with signatures.
The 2020 election was conducted by mail-in-only balloting for the first time ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the mayoral race, Third Ward Councilman Sean Spiller edged Baskerville by 195 votes. The other five competitive Township Council races — David Cummings ran unopposed in the Fourth Ward — saw margins of victory between 294 and 458 votes.
Baskerville asserts that there are roughly 1,086 ballots in possession of the Essex County Clerk’s Office that have not been counted.
The plaintiffs contend that their ballots were postmarked by election day, May 12, but were disallowed. The complaint names among the defendants New Jersey’s chief election officer, Tahesha Way; Essex County Clerk Christopher Durkin; Essex County elections clerk Linda von Nessi; and Montclair Township clerk Juliette Lee.
The complaints against Way and Durkin were dismissed.
The judge granted Spiller’s request to join as a defendant in the suit.
The parties will be required to file their positions with the court, addressing the specific issue of whether the deadline, under which the Board of Elections counts mail-in ballots that are received up to 48 hours after the polls close on the day of an election and are properly postmarked, may be relaxed and extended.
Oral arguments are set for Sept. 11.
In preparation for a mostly mail-in statewide primary July 7, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order allowing for the primary to be conducted by mail and to allow a seven-day window, stating that all ballots received up until July 14 would be counted. Some polling locations will also be open in July.