A tense Township Council race in Moorestown that centered on contaminated drinking water is among those that remain unsettled a week after the Nov. 8 election, as a printing problem forced Burlington County poll workers to hand-count about 20,000 mail-in ballots.
And the completion of that task Monday night still did not bring finality to several local races where the margins of victory were razor-thin. Next comes the counting of about 3,000 provisional votes, those cast by paper ballot and set aside when the voters' names were missing from the registration books. If a voter's registration is later located and verified, the vote is counted and could affect the outcome of the close races.
Who says every vote doesn't count?
In historically Republican Moorestown, where tainted water was discovered in some township wells in 2013, the horse race for three seats up for grabs on the five-member council is still in play. Party control is at stake. Democrat Lisa Petriello was the top vote-getter on Election Night, but at that time her lead was only 26 votes. After the mail-ins were counted, Petriello inched further ahead with one extra vote.
But it is unclear who will wind up on Council. The race is that close.
Petriello has unofficially won, as of now, with 5,505 votes, along with two Republicans, Mike Locatelli and Victoria Napolitano. He got 5,478 votes and she, 5,412. That would mean the Republicans have a majority on the council.
But the names and numbers could change again, since the candidate in fourth place, Democrat Kati Angelini, is only 50 votes shy of winning one of the seats with 5,363 votes. The others, Phil Garwood, a Republican, and Amy Leis, a Democrat, potentially are in the game too, with 5,341 for him and 5,248 for her.
The Democrats had campaigned on the issue of how the discovery of the contaminated water was handled, while members of the Republican slate, which included Mayor Garwood and Deputy Mayor Napolitano, defended the way the town addressed the problem, and said they were focused on safety and were upgrading the water infrastructure.
Election officials would not provide a breakdown showing which municipalities are affected by the 3,000 provisional ballots.
In another town with a contentious race, Delran Mayor Ken Paris, a Democrat, is leading against his Republican challenger, Mike Piper, by a slim 102 votes, up from a 94-vote lead before the mail-in tallies were announced. The vote so far is 3,933 to 3,831.
In Hainesport, the numbers are even closer. Republican Frank Masciocchi so far has 48 more votes than Democrat Natalie Schneider (1,617 to 1,569) in a race to win one of three seats up for grabs on the Township Council. Republican Leila Gilmore and Democrat Anna M. Evans have more sizable margins, not enough to be upended when the final count is in.
Two years ago, when the county changed its election system and purchased a ballot scanner, the mail-in ballots could be scanned in a few hours - not days, County Clerk Tim Tyler said this week. But this year, the proper coding was missing from the mail-in ballots, which made them unreadable by the scanner, he said.
Tyler also said the number of mail-in ballots had increased significantly, from the 12,000 that were counted after the 2008 presidential election to 20,000 this year. The 2008 election was the first time New Jersey residents were permitted to obtain "no excuse needed" mail-in ballots without having to provide a reason to qualify, he said. Prior to that, residents had to apply for an absentee ballot and explain they would be out of state on Election Day or were unable to make it to the polls due to health reasons.
Joe Dugan, chairman of the Board of Elections, said the bipartisan board this year had to bring in about 100 workers on Election Day to hand-count the mail-in ballots.
They worked 13 hours on Election Day, Dugan said, and then returned the next day for an additional eight hours before the job was done. The board's staff and the workers who were called in did "an outstanding job," he said.
After that, the tallies had to be checked again and then sent to the county clerk to be verified and entered into the computer.
Asked why the error with the mail-in ballots was not discovered earlier, Dugan said the printing company "sent us some ballots to be tested with our scanner and they worked. . . . But the ones we mailed out, the majority did not have the code" that was needed for the scanner to read them, Dugan said. "We haven't had time to sit down yet and analyze what went wrong."
The final results are expected to be released by Friday. Then, the candidates in the towns with close races should know whether they can begin their celebrations.