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Mail and Technical Snafus Push New Jersey Governor’s Race to Overtime

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 11/3/2021 Skylar Woodhouse
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy Holds Election Night Event © Bloomberg New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy Holds Election Night Event

(Bloomberg) -- Some New Jersey officials are warning a full accounting of the governor’s race could take more than a week, thanks to unopened mail-in ballots, technical snafus and voting changes that had been untested ahead of the high-stakes battle between incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy and Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli. 

“I don’t think it is going to be called anytime soon,” said Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi, in an interview. “No one is going to know until next week.”

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In Union, a Democratic county that juts up against Newark, the county sent out more than 47,000 vote-by-mail ballots; roughly half have come back, Rajoppi said. There are more than a dozen machines that have not yet been counted. Electronic polling books used for the first time had trouble connecting to the internet and poll workers had to resort to giving out provisional ballots, she said. 

A number of provisional ballots “will not even be opened until Monday,” Rajoppi said. “A few thousand provisionals can make a difference.”

A governor’s race that was expected to deliver Murphy a handy win caught many by surprise with a surge of support for Ciattarelli on Election Day. As of Wednesday afternoon, Murphy was ahead by about 16,000 votes, out of 2.4 million counted, according to the Associated Press. 

With the state conducting early in-person voting for the first time, many poll stations and election officials were flummoxed.

“You took essentially what was a one-day election and you turned it into a 10-day election,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “When you add up the technological issues and the non-technological issues, you are seeing the slowest count we’ve seen in anyone’s memory.”

Possible Recounts

Even once election officials work out the snafus, political analysts say a recount could be inevitable due to voting changes and close contests. 


Video: New Jersey governor race tests Murphy's progressive politics (Associated Press)

“I don’t know why either candidate at this point wouldn’t do that,” Rasmussen said. “We should have done that for the first time -- deployed the early voting --in a lower-stakes election like a primary election. That would have made a lot more sense.”

Recounts are not automatic in New Jersey like in other states. Any candidate or a group of voters may request a recount by an individual county within a period of 17 days, according to the Division of Elections. The state statute doesn’t explicitly say whether there has to be a certain percentage margin in order to ask for a recount, only that the candidate or group “have reason to believe that an error has been made.”

When asked if the Ciattarelli campaign would seek a recount, spokesperson Stami Williams said it’s “too soon to tell but everything is still on the table.”

The Murphy campaign referred questions to Rajiv Parikh, general counsel for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, who said that counting votes could take several days and that Murphy was prepared to wait for the results.

The campaign’s focus “is to make sure that everybody who cast a ballot for the election has their vote counted,” Parikh said.

Morris County Clerk Ann F. Grossi said a recount could extend the outcome by weeks. Ciattarelli had 57% of the vote in Morris County, a wealthy New York City suburb, as of 5 p.m. on Wednesday, according to the AP.

“What could prolong some things is if they want to have a recount for the gubernatorial race, so that’s a possibility,” Grossi said. “That recount would have to be done by the 19th, and I do hope they don’t wait until then because that would be a little crazy.”

Mail-in ballots postmarked on or before Election Day will continue to be received by the county boards of election up to six days after the close of the polls.

In the Democratic stronghold of Essex County, vote numbers on the county clerk’s website have gone unchanged since Tuesday night. Essex County Clerk Christopher Durkin said most of the 56 of 550 districts that were not reported are in Newark, East Orange, Irvington, Maplewood and Montclair, during an interview on News 12 New Jersey. His office didn’t return requests for comment.

 

In Camden, deputy county clerk John Schmidt said there are more than two dozen machines that haven’t been counted and 605 pieces of mail sitting at the post office. Out of 104,000 vote-by-mail ballots sent out, the county had only received 60,000 as of Tuesday. Another thousand came in the mail yesterday and the drop boxes are “fairly heavy,” Schmidt said. “Provisionals could swing it one way or the other.”

The Sussex County Clerk’s Office said it is still waiting on some ballots to arrive via USPS through Monday, Nov. 8.

(Updates with comments from campaigns on recounts.)

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