ATLANTIC CITY — A judge granted requests for election recounts Monday to two candidates who were ahead at the polls Nov. 5 but lost after hundreds of mail-in ballots flipped the results.
Republican 5th Ward Atlantic City Council candidate Sharon Zappia and Pleasantville school board candidate Doris Rowell asked for the recounts in the tight elections, to be sure each ballot was properly recorded.
Rowell said the recount is also a precursor to contesting her election, alleging illegal votes were counted.
She lost by 36 votes with 2,668 ballots cast (each voting for three open seats). Zappia said she is considering contesting her race.
Judge Julio Mendez ordered that all paperwork and “paraphernalia” related to the election be preserved under lock and key by the Board of Elections and other election officials, including the envelopes in which mail-in ballots were sent and mail-in ballot applications.
If the elections are contested and candidates can show fraud occurred, a judge can order a new election, said Atlantic County Board of Elections Chair Lynn Caterson.
The recount and recheck will only involve making sure the voting machine counts were correct, and hand counting every paper ballot to be sure they were counted correctly by a scanning machine, Mendez emphasized.
He encouraged the candidates to seek advise of counsel if they proceed to contest the election.
“I will challenge,” Rowell said after the proceedings, adding she believes votes-by-mail were improperly used in her election. “I am a taxpayer. People came out and voted for me. People’s votes are being taken away. We are going to take back our schools.”
Caterson said the board will conduct machine recounts Tuesday at 1 p.m. in the voting machine storage facility in Northfield, and hand counts of all paper ballots — provisional and mail-in votes — Wednesday starting at 2 p.m. at the board office in Mays Landing.
In Atlantic City’s 5th Ward race Muhammad “Anjum” Zia defeated Republican Zappia by 83 votes, according to certified election results.
Zappia received more votes at the polling stations and held a 71-vote lead on election night. But Zia received 221 mail-in ballots, 25 provisionals and two hand counts to Zappia’s 75, 19, and 0, respectively.
In Pleasantville, Jerome Page easily won his bid for re-election. But for his running mates, newcomers Ta’Shona Sparkmon and Rowell, an election night lead was destroyed by more than 700 mail-in and messenger ballots.
The other two winners instead were Juanita Pryce and Alejandrina Alberto, who are affiliated with a different faction on the board. Alberto leads Rowell by just 36 votes in the certified results.
Democratic political operatives Craig Callaway and Dave Callaway were in the audience with Zia, whom they supported, they said after the proceedings.
The Callaways are known to run an organization that encourages the use of vote-by-mail ballots and messenger ballots. The candidates they support often win through votes by mail.
“All votes are votes,” Craig Callaway said. “There is no difference between a vote by mail and one at the machine.”
He said if it’s an indication of fraud that the vast majority of vote-by-mails went to one faction’s candidates, it’s also an indication of fraud that most votes went to the other faction’s candidates at the polls.
“Fraud is fraud,” Craig Callaway said. “They want to make it look like all fraud is through vote-by-mail.”
He said there are more stringent controls on votes by mail, including checking of every signature. But Caterson said poll workers also check every signature, and many who voted with provisional paper ballots this year had to do so because their signatures were challenged by poll workers and required investigation.
“Most poll workers are there for the paycheck,” Dave Calloway said. “They don’t care.”
Votes at the polls are secret ballots. Votes by mail may allow an opportunity for someone to pressure or buy votes in a certain direction, and watch someone fill out a paper ballot to see how they vote.
State laws that created voter confusion and a flood of mail-in ballots in 2018 and 2019 elections were voided late last month by a state panel.
The New Jersey Council on Local Mandates ruled in favor of the New Jersey Association of Counties, which had sued the state, calling the laws unfunded mandates, said John G. Donnadio, executive director of the association.
The new law created a spike in the number of mail-in ballots Atlantic County had to process this year. This year alone, about 20,000 mail-in ballots were sent to voters in Atlantic County, and 9,700 were returned and counted, Caterson said. The last time the Assembly was at the top of the ticket, in 2015, 4,532 mail-in ballots were cast in Atlantic County.