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Judge orders hand recount of 4% of vote to settle Atlantic County freeholder at-large race

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Atlantic County must recount an additional 4% of the 143,000 ballots cast in the Nov. 3 election, on top of the 2% recently recounted for a state audit, to determine whether results are accurate in the at-large freeholder race.

Assignment Judge Julio Mendez ruled Friday that the hand recount of about 5,400 ballots by the county Board of Elections must start no later than Tuesday and be completed no later than Dec. 18.

Democrat Celeste Fernandez, of Egg Harbor Township, is seeking the recount because the vote totals were so close. Fernandez is 381 votes behind incumbent Republican John Risley in the certified results. With about 132,400 votes cast in the freeholder race, that’s a difference of about 0.3%.

“Following the additional recount, the Board will adjust the final numbers if appropriate, and provide the results to all parties and the Court,” Mendez wrote.

He also ordered the recount “shall be conducted as an open public meeting and members of the public and the press shall be free to observe.”

Board of Elections Chair Lynn Caterson said late Friday the board will hold a Zoom meeting at 5 p.m. Monday to pull the batch numbers that will be recounted in a random drawing.

Other meetings are set for 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, also on Zoom, to watch staff count the ballots. All meetings are open to the public to watch, and links to the Zoom meetings will be on the board’s website.

The Wednesday meeting will only happen if the recount cannot be completed before then, Caterson said.

A state-ordered audit of 2% of ballots gave six additional votes to Fernandez and five to Risley, only changing the difference between them by one vote.

The 4% will be broken up into two groups of 2%, Mendez ordered. “Once the two additional batches of 2% of the ballots are recounted, the parties will be in a better position to compare the results of the three groups of 2% batches to verify the accuracy of the results.”

Mendez said 2,791 ballots were recounted by hand for the audit, finding an error rate of about half a percentage point. In the 4% hand recount, he expects about 5,400 more ballots to be recounted.

The vote-by-mail and provisional ballots cast Nov. 3 are batched in groups of about 200 ballots each and numbered, election officials have said.

It took the board staff about eight hours to recount 2% of ballots for the state audit. But that involved recounting the presidential, U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, at-large freeholder and District 3 freeholder races.

Voters were asked to vote for two of four candidates for two seats on the freeholder board.

Democrat Caren Fitzpatrick received the most votes overall, with 67,600, followed by Risley with 66,427, Fernandez with 66,046 and Republican Somers Point Councilman James Toto with 64,566.

Mendez also reduced the fee for the recount to a flat $750, rather than the $25 per voting district (in this case voting machine) in Atlantic County. The original fee would have exceeded $2,000.

In another case involving a petition for a new election in the District 3 freeholder race in Atlantic County, Mendez will hold a phone conference Tuesday to determine when a trial will be held on the matter, he said at a Friday hearing.

In that case, GOP candidate Andrew Parker is seeking reversal of the certified results and a new election because county Clerk Ed McGettigan’s office sent the wrong ballots to 554 people in Hamilton Township.

Democrat Thelma Witherspoon, of Hamilton, received 15,034 votes to Parker’s 14,748, a difference of 286 votes.

District 3 covers most of Egg Harbor Township and some of Hamilton Township. The District 3 freeholder race was the only race affected by the ballot mix-up.

Mendez also must determine a schedule for arguments over whether Witherspoon will take office in January or whether she must wait for the new election petition to be settled.

“There were legal votes rejected and illegal votes accepted sufficient to change the result of the election,” Parker’s petition said. Of the 554 incorrect ballots sent, 418 were returned and counted.

Contact: 609-272-7219

Twitter @MichelleBPost

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