MAYS LANDING — Republican John Risley defeated Thelma Witherspoon for the final Atlantic County freeholder at-large seat following a marathon board of elections meeting Monday night. 

Risley, an incumbent on the board, won by 200 votes after the Atlantic County Board of Elections inspected and counted 787 provisional ballots from last week's general election. 

The count, which began at 5 p.m., lasted until 10 p.m. After the count, Witherspoon congratulated Risley and the two candidates shook hands. 

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With the win, Republicans will hold a 6-3 advantage on the board when the new members are sworn in early next year. 

The 6-3 advantage is down from an 8-1 advantage after Democrats Caren Fitzpatrick and Ashley Bennett won seats in last week's election. 

In another tight race, Republican John Kurtz defeated Democrat Dwight Melton by less than 20 votes to win a seat on the Hamilton Township Committee. 

None of the election results have been certified, and Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Mike Suleiman said he may explore a possible recount in the Hamilton Township race. 

For the freeholder race, Suleiman said that the combination of rain and a Green Party candidate kept the Democrats from sweeping the freeholder races this year. 

"If we had a slightly higher turnout, then Thelma would have won," he said. "The Green Party candidate also got 1,400 votes that would have otherwise been Democratic votes."

Keith Davis, chairman of the Atlantic County Republican committee, said that he thought Atlantic County Republicans did "pretty well" in the freeholder and municipal races despite the unpopularity of outgoing Governor Chris Christie. 

Counting the provisional ballots was a tedious process that took place in a small upstairs room of the Atlantic County Clerk Building. The four members of the county Board of Elections, two Democrats and two Republicans, had to review every one of the 787 provisional ballots and vote on whether they were valid.

Some of the disqualifying factors are if the voter did not sign the ballot or did not fill it out correctly, or if they were not registered to vote.

If the board could not decide whether a ballot was valid, that ballot was sent to a judge to decide whether the vote counted.

The board made clear they had to take their time because some of the races were so close, just a few votes could flip an election.

In attendance Monday night were Risley and Witherspoon, as well as freeholders-elect Ashley Bennett and Caren Fitzpatrick and current freeholder Amy Gatto. Tony DiPietro, who also ran for a freeholder at-large seat, came to support Risley. 

Going into the night, Risley held a 285-vote lead over Witherspoon. The largest chunk of provisional ballots came from Atlantic City with 215.

Other towns with large numbers of provisional ballots were Egg Harbor Township with 134 and Galloway Township with 79.

Risley said that he was proud of the campaign he and his Republican colleagues ran.

“We ran a clean campaign. We didn’t take any shots at our Democratic opponents,” he said. “I’m proud of my record in public office, and I admire anyone who takes the time to run for office.”

Ashley Bennett said she received a congratulatory letter from County Executive Dennis Levinson and that current Freeholders Amy Gatto and Ernest Coursey have reached out to congratulate her.

She said she was pulling hard for Witherspoon to win, which would have brought the board to 5-4 Republicans over Democrats. 

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Contact: 609-272-7260 JDeRosier@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressDeRosier

I joined The Press in January 2016 after graduating from Penn State in December 2015. I was the sports editor for The Daily Collegian on campus which covered all 31 varsity sports and several club sports.

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