Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, who is up for reelection next year, issued a press release on Saturday morning calling for a review of what went wrong during the general election on Nov. 8 and an overhaul of the elections process in the county.
Voters across the county could not scan their ballots on election day. The ballots had to be scanned at the board of elections office. The ballots could not be scanned due to a barcode printing error. Dominion Voting has issued a statement saying their scanners were not at fault. Ballots for three districts in Princeton and at least one in Robbinsville were missing. They were located in the scanner machine boxes and at the board of elections office.
“After issues in the last two elections, I have come to the conclusion that we must fundamentally change the management of the election process in Mercer County because it is clearly not working,” Hughes said in a written statement. “There are legal limits to what I can do as county executive but rest assured that I will do everything within my power to ensure the integrity of elections in Mercer County and will tolerate nothing less.”
In Mercer County, three entities — the board of elections, the superintendent of elections, and the office of the county clerk — each play a role in elections.
Board of elections commissioners are appointed by the county chairs for the Republican and Democratic parties.
The superintendent of elections is appointed by the governor to serve a five-year term. Names for the superintendent are put forth to the state senate for the superintendent and deputy superintendent of elections by the two political parties, and the senate then makes the recommendation to the governor for approval. Under state statute, the office of the superintendent of elections can be established for counties of a certain size. Half a dozen counties in the state have a superintendent of elections.
Voters elect the county clerk, who serves a five-year term. Paula Sollami Covello was elected to serve her fourth term in 2020.
All counties have a county clerk and a board of elections.
Hughes is calling for all three offices to be merged into one office, along with the creation of a new executive director position that will oversee elections. He wants to ask the legislature to change the state statute to allow Mercer County to merge the three divisions. He is also pledging county resources for the investigation into what went wrong on election day, and requesting a special meeting where the clerk, superintendent, and election board chair explain to the public what happened.
“I am happy that Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami-Covello requested that the county prosecutor look into the election. But we also need a more thorough and public review. We’ve got too many people in control and the quality of our elections has suffered as a result, undermining people’s faith in the democratic process,” Hughes said in the press release statement.
The other counties in New Jersey with the same setup as Mercer County — with an elected clerk, an appointed superintendent of elections, and a bipartisan election commission. — have not faced the problems Mercer County faced on Tuesday and in the election last year.
In the press release, Hughes distances says his office has no role in supervising the offices that handle the election process. “In Mercer County, the office of the county executive does not supervise the board, their offices, nor does it have jurisdiction. The board is responsible for selecting polling places, training board workers, receiving and counting vote-by-mail ballots, and counting and certifying provisional ballots, reads the press release. “The Superintendent of Elections handles voter registration, renews registration records, investigates provisional ballots, and is the custodian of voting machines. The County Clerk designs and prints all election ballots, processes vote-by-mail applications, and officially certifies the election results.”
Hughes pledged that county officials “will get to the bottom of this” and that every vote will be counted. “I have listened to the people of Mercer County and have spoken with election officials, and we are committed to finding out how we can improve the election process and to prevent future incidents as the one on Election Day.”
Planet Princeton has reached out to the county chair for the Republican Party for comment. This story will be updated.