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Atlantic County commissioners race recount will focus on undervotes, overvotes
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Atlantic County commissioners race recount will focus on undervotes, overvotes

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A recount in the 2020 Atlantic County commissioners race shows Republican incumbent John Risley maintaining his victory over Democratic challenger Celeste Fernandez.

The recount of the 2020 Atlantic County at-large commissioner race between incumbent Republican John Risley and Democrat Celeste Fernandez will focus on all undervotes and overvotes identified by a scanning machine, attorneys agreed at a hearing Friday before Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez.

Undervotes happen when the scanner says a ballot contains no vote in a particular race, and can be mistakenly caused by a voter not pressing hard enough when filling out a ballot.

Overvotes happen when the scanner reads that votes were cast for too many candidates in a race, and can be mistakenly caused by a fold or mark on the paper not made by the voter.

In both cases, no vote is recorded.

Risley is the declared winner in the race, but his 0.03% margin of victory was so slight that Fernandez contested the election and Mendez ordered a partial recount that did not change the results.

Fernandez appealed and recently won the right to a full recount.

In a hearing Friday before Mendez, both parties agreed there doesn’t have to be a quorum of the Board of Elections present while about 140,000 vote-by-mail and provisional paper ballots are read by the scanner.

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Instead, one board member or elections board staff member from each party will be present, they agreed, along with one representative of each party.

A quorum of the four-member board — made up of two Democrats and two Republicans — will only be needed once the expected 22,000 undervotes and overvotes are ready to be hand-examined by the board, the lawyers agreed. If a majority of members can’t agree on whether a ballot should be counted, it will be sent to Mendez to make a decision.

Mendez said he wants the recount to happen within 30 days, and will issue a consent order soon setting out the parameters.

The parties’ attorneys disagreed, however, on how many of the undervote and overvote ballots should be shown to the public via an overhead projector of some kind.

“The issue of projecting all the ballots is a logistical nightmare,” said Randolph Lafferty, the attorney for the Republicans. “With 22,000 involved in the process, to project each individually will take forever. We are going to be there for weeks if we do that.”

“As far as displaying, there are about 800 overvotes,” said Robert Herman, the Democrats’ attorney, although others estimated them at 1,400. “We’d like to see at the very least the overvotes displayed so we can see what is going on.”

Deputy Attorney General George Cohen, who represents the Board of Elections, said he would ask the board what is technically possible in terms of handling the undervotes and overvotes. The attorneys will talk further with each other next week.

If the parties can agree on all terms, Mendez will be able to issue the consent order in about a week, but if they cannot agree, Mendez will make the decision, he said.

After completing a court-ordered hand recount of 4% of all ballots cast in the at-large freeholder race in Atlantic County on Nov. 3, and a state-ordered audit of 2% of ballots, Fernandez came just one vote closer to Risley.

REPORTER: Michelle Brunetti Post

609-272-7210

mpost@pressofac.com

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Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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