MAYS LANDING, N.J. — The familiar white van sits in front of the Atlantic County Courthouse, where Democratic operative David Callaway waits as two people he has driven from Atlantic City fill out forms to obtain "messenger ballots" for the coming election.
The tableau is a staple of Atlantic City elections, where extensive vote-by-mail operations swayed the most recent Democratic mayoral primary in favor of Councilman Frank Gilliam, who is in a tight contest with incumbent Republican Mayor Don Guardian.
The van is known to pick up Atlantic City residents outside the public library and take them to Mays Landing either to apply for mail-in ballots for themselves or to be messengers picking up ballots to be delivered to other voters. Messengers are limited to three ballots each per election cycle. Some say they're offered $30 to be messengers or as an incentive to get a ballot.
But there's a twist this time. Republican Councilman Jesse Kurtz, who is also head of the city's Republican committee, says when he went to the old courthouse in Mays Landing to obtain his vote-by-mail ballot, he was given one that was already filled out — for three Democrats. "Pre-loaded … and obviously … tampered with" is how his subsequent letter of complaint to the state attorney general described the ballot.
Kurtz confirmed via a Twitter message that he had received a sealed ballot filled out for Democrats Gilliam for mayor, Phil Murphy for governor, and Councilman George Tibbitt. He said he was given a new ballot that was clean, but received no explanation for the pre-marked ballot.
The matter is under investigation by the state Attorney General's Office, which confirmed it had received a letter of complaint from the Atlantic County Republican Party. Deputy Atlantic County Clerk Michael Sommers, who oversees ballots and elections, said late Tuesday that he was cooperating with the Attorney General's Office.
He would turn over the information the office is seeking, Sommers said from inside a ceremonial courtroom late Tuesday as Callaway waited outside in a hallway and the second of two men who accompanied him filled out messenger forms and left with a ballot addressed to another voter.
Callaway walked into the courtroom twice, but walked out after a reporter followed him in. He then drove off in the van with the two men. He declined to respond to questions about the ballots.
Atlantic County Clerk Edward P. McGettigan released a letter he sent to the Attorney General's Office in which he said that the official mail-in-ballot envelope, certificate of mail-in vote, and Atlantic City ballot, all placed inside a mailing envelope and given to Kurtz on Sept. 29, were processed "following standard operating procedures supported by statutory requirements."
"The envelope was sealed and handed directly to the voter," he wrote.
After being informed that the ballot had votes already cast on it, the office received the ballot back from the voter "followed by the procedures that are in place for all duplicate ballot requests, resealed the envelope with the duplicate ballot inside and turned that over to the voter."
"The Atlantic County Clerk's Office does have in place enough safeguards to prevent this matter from going any further and can assure voters that this incident has not been duplicated and that all election materials are locked and are inaccessible to the general public," McGettigan wrote.
"For a ballot to be counted it needs the official mail-in ballot envelope with a computer generated label along with the certificate of mail-in voter that must be signed by the voter," he wrote. "Without those two components no ballot will be considered voted upon."
Before a mayoral debate Tuesday evening in Atlantic City, Guardian called for an investigation.
"It's voter fraud," he said. "Someone obviously filled out that ballot. We need to find out who that was. We need to investigate and prosecute that. It's outrageous that a ballot was filled out before the person received it."
Democratic challenger Gilliam said he was skeptical of the allegations.
"I find it very disheartening that someone would challenge the board of elections, them having a stellar record of making sure things are upfront and forthright," he said. "It can't be us because he actually got the ballot from the county. Out of thousands of ballots that have already been mailed in, how did that one end up being the chair of the city's Republican Party? At the same time, I'm not going to prejudge, and will allow the process to work out."
Gilliam noted that the perception persists that there is something wrong with using mail-in ballots and messengers, all of which are legal. Sommers said his office was "in the midst of heavier load of ballot requests and needs dedicated time to handle the general [public]."
David Callaway and his brother Craig, who is a former City Council president, are familiar and controversial protagonists of many Atlantic City election sagas. Craig Callaway attended Gilliam's victory party on primary day, but Gilliam said then they were not working directly for his campaign.