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    Ballots from more NJ towns turned up in voting machines. No one's explained how they went missing.

    By Louis C. Hochman,

    Ballots from at least four Mercer County, New Jersey communities that were cast on Election Day were missing when vote tallies started. Ballots from three towns were found in voting machines. Ballots from a fourth were at the county Board of Elections office.

    Mercer County officials discovered ballots had been missing from at least two more municipalities than they previously knew about late last week, after getting a court order to open up machines, according to a candidate who witnessed the process.

    Jenna Figueroa Kettenburg, who was seeking a seat on Trenton City Council representing the city's South Ward, said she watched elections officials find ballots from both her own city and neighboring Hamilton, along with Princeton, in the machines. Until then, there had been no public reports of ballots missing from Hamilton or Trenton.

    Princeton officials had been notified some ballots were missing following an Election Day in which voting machine scanners failed to read ballots county-wide , and ballots were instead brought back to county offices for counting. Robbinsville municipal officials were also notified of missing ballots — but those were ultimately found in the county Board of Elections Office, said Mayor Dave Fried.

    “[County officials] never really gave us a good explanation as to what happened, where they were,” Fried said.

    Figueroa Kettenburg said she had been present for the machines’ opening Thursday along with county Board of Election commissioners, sheriff’s officers and other officials.

    Questions about how ballots went missing — and how some of them were found — linger a week after the voting machine failure prompted officials to instruct voters to insert their paper ballots in "emergency" slots in the machines, instead of feeding them through for immediate scanning. It’s the second year in a row the county struggled with ballot counts. Last year, it took days to report Election Day totals , and election workers dealt with ballots jammed in machines in some locations.

    Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello has asked the county prosecutor’s office to look into the matter of the machines going down this year, though she’s said she’s not aware of any indication of wrongdoing. Voting machine company Dominion and a printer have each blamed the other for the scanning problem .

    But both Mayor Fried and Figueroa Kettenburg say they have questions about whether all ballots cast on Election Day really have been accounted for — and counted. Sollami Covello said they have, though as of Tuesday, counting of mail-in and provisional ballots continued. The county's superintendent of elections, Nathaniel Walker, also issued a statement late Tuesday saying all Election Day results had been counted. The latest results available on the county clerk's website at that point had been published a day earlier and it wasn't clear if it included those final counts.

    "[What] I can tell you is that we posted every vote count that they provided to us on my website," Sollami Covello said by email.

    Fried, a Republican, said tallies showing more voters casting ballots in some local races than congressional races didn’t seem to make sense, though it wasn't immediately clear which races he was referencing — county figures available as of Tuesday didn't seem to reflect any individual race where that was true. The figures as published to that point did not break down congressional race tallies by individual municipality or district.

    And Figueroa Kettenburg says her campaign’s own tally of voters coming to the polls in the South Ward is hundreds of votes higher than the total of votes reflected for that area. She said a disparity in those counts prompted her to ask that the Trenton machines be opened in the first place, after officials secured a court order letting them examine voting machines from the county.

    Figueroa Kettenburg said it’s unclear to her whether she and her opponent Damian G. Malave are headed to a runoff election, as would happen if neither candidate had more than 50% of the vote. The latest results available as of Tuesday showed both under 50%, though it’s not yet clear what impact mail-in or provisional ballots may have on that race.

    “We just need answers. We need to know: ‘What are we doing? What are we doing this week? You know, are we hitting the ground running? You know, are we ordering more lawn signs? Ordering more literature?’” she said.

    Sollami Covello deferred questions about how many ballots had gone missing, as well as where and how they were found, to the county Board of Elections — saying she didn’t have firsthand information, though she understood some ballots had been found in machines. An email to the board and a call to one of its commissioners placed Tuesday haven’t yet been returned. Messages to the county superintendent of elections’ office also hadn’t yet been returned.

    Staff at municipal clerks’ offices in Hamilton and Trenton declined to comment, and the clerks for both communities were out of the office Tuesday. Princeton’s clerk’s office previously confirmed ballots had gone missing and were later found.

    Figueroa Kettenburg said when she’d watched voting machines be opened, some had ballots in one of two bins inside, while some had ballots in both. Fried said in a statement to his community he’d learned that in Princeton, some of the emergency bins filled up, so polling sites began using the normal bins once optical scanners were removed from the machines.

    Both Fried and Figueroa Kettenburg described other activities they found troubling. Figueroa Kettenburg said not all poll workers had up-to-date information or gave clear instructions to voters in the early hours after machines stopped working — and she believes some voters left and didn’t come back.

    “People were screaming, people were in a panic,” she said. “So we were just plagued with issues from the go.”

    And Fried said county election workers have told him about bags of ballots being delivered to county offices, open, without security safeguarding the deliveries. He said he’s worried the chain of custody for ballots wasn’t protected.

    “I'm certainly not saying anything nefarious happened," he said. "But it's certainly not a good look when someone arrives with a bag of open ballots.”

    Correction: An earlier version of this article misinterpreted the Mercer County voting results available as of Tuesday. The results indicated nearly 108,000 votes were cast for Mercer County commissioner seats.

    This article has also been updated to say it's unclear which races Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried was referencing when he said some local races saw more voters than congressional races, and to reflect a statement from the county superintendent of elections.

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