Mail-in ballots have apparently scored a win for the incumbent Democrats in the 2nd District Assembly race, disappointing two Republican challengers who were in the lead after machine totals on election night.

After the majority of mail-in and provisional ballots were counted by Thursday morning, Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato, both D-Atlantic, were ahead by 2,254 and 939 votes, respectively. They had been down by similar numbers based on machine votes only.

The Democrats declared victory Thursday, and Republican candidates Atlantic County Freeholder John Risley, of Egg Harbor Township, and Phil Guenther, former longtime mayor of Brigantine, conceded.

But the GOP candidates alleged the huge vote-by-mail numbers for Democrats reflect a thwarting of the will of voters.

“We feel that voters in Atlantic County were cheated out of a free and fair election, this time for state Assembly, at the hands of the Callaway organization,” Risley said of efforts by Craig Callaway to get mail-in and messenger ballots to targeted voters. “We would like to see the attorney general and the FBI investigate.”

The Democratic team got more than twice as many mail-in votes, about 5,000 each to the Republicans’ 2,400 each.

“A vote is a vote, whether it is by machine, a provisional vote or a vote-by-mail,” said Atlantic County Democratic Party Chairman Michael Suleiman. “There’s this notion that the proportion on a machine is supposed to match on vote by mail. That is not realistic.”

But Guenther said having vote-by-mail ballots swing so many elections in favor of Democrats — as they did in the primaries in Atlantic City and in the city’s 5th Ward race — isn’t good for the community.

“This can’t become the new normal, where everybody thinks it’s OK to go out and harvest votes the way they are being harvested,” Guenther said.

The Democrats also got a few hundred more provisional votes, paper ballots filled out when someone goes to the polls but is not in the poll book because they were sent a mail-in ballot or for other reasons.

There are only about 80 disputed ballots a judge must vote on and fewer than 20 top-of-ticket-only ballots that have yet to be counted by hand, Atlantic County Board of Elections Chairwoman Evelyn Caterson said Thursday. That is too few to overcome the Democrats’ lead.

Mail-in ballots regularly swing races at the local level, but it’s unusual to swing Assembly races, Caterson said.

Congratulations began pouring in Thursday, with the New Jersey Sierra Club celebrating the reelection of Mazzeo, whom it had endorsed.

“The election season is finally over and has ended in an environmental victory for LD2,” said N.J. Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel. “The Sierra Club endorsed Assemblyman Mazzeo because he has consistently been a leader for clean water and clean air in the state Legislature. We are confident these assemblymen will continue to be environmental champions on issues like climate change, open space and more.”

Mazzeo said he’s happy he and Armato will return to Trenton.

“I’m humbled to be reelected for my fourth term,” Mazzeo said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to continue our success turning around the city and Atlantic County.”

He said he will focus on property tax reform and working more with small businesses “to figure out a way to do tax incentives for them.”

Armato had been nervous since election night, when early numbers made them feel they were well ahead, then later numbers showed he and Mazzeo were behind the Republicans.

“I was nervous until this morning,” Armato said. “We were back to a holding pattern that lasted a week and a couple of days.”

He said he will focus on protecting senior citizens from scams, getting veterans the benefits they deserve and helping decrease Atlantic City and Atlantic County’s infant and maternal mortality rates.

The Democrats outspent the Republicans by a wide margin and had a political action committee linked to Camden’s George Norcross, General Majority PAC, sending out mailers on their behalf. One of those made unsubstantiated allegations against Risley’s financial firm.

“They crossed the line,” Risley said. “Being Photoshopped is one thing, but false allegations against me and my firm crossed a line, and I hold both of them responsible.”

Caterson said the disputed ballots are not likely to go before a judge until early next week, and the election results won’t become final until later next week.

Contact: 609-272-7219

Twitter @MichelleBPost

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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