Democrats hope recount swings Gloucester County race

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Paper ballots like these – more than 7,000 of them – are to be recounted, and voting-machine tallies rechecked.

Stung by its defeat in the race for two Gloucester County freeholder seats last month, the South Jersey Democratic machine hopes a full recount will deliver enough votes to put at least one of its candidates into office.

But recounts rarely reverse initial outcomes, Superintendent of Elections Stephanie Salvatore said as a tedious inspection of the county's 460 voting machines began Tuesday in a drafty West Deptford warehouse.

For the first time in 15 years, Republicans were elected to the seven-member board after a hard-fought campaign that turned ugly in the final weeks. GOP newcomers Larry Wallace and Vince Nestore Jr. beat Heather Simmons and Robert Zimmerman, who had mailed political ads suggesting that their opponents were apathetic to the needs of cancer patients.

Wallace, who lost a child to brain cancer, fought back, saying Democrats were wrong to link him and Nestore to Republican state legislators who recently voted to cut funding for cancer clinics.

After more than 81,000 ballots were counted, Wallace was the front-runner. Nestore came in second, defeating Simmons by 119 votes and Zimmerman by 165.

Two weeks later, the county Democratic Committee asked Superior Court Judge Richard Hoffman to approve a check of the voting machines and a recount of more than 7,000 paper ballots either mailed in or drawn up on Election Day as provisional ballots. Provisionals are used when there has been a change in address or name, or when a voter requested a mail ballot but did not send it.

Hoffman denied a request to count the 37 votes that arrived at Election Board offices after the Nov. 2 deadline. They have not been opened, Salvatore said.

The recount is to continue Wednesday and is expected to finish by the end of the week.

Though significant alteration in the results is unlikely, Salvatore said the paper ballots have "human involvement" and could lead to a challenges and perhaps a slight change in a tally.

"The instructions say, 'Fill in the circle next to the name of the candidate,' but if a voter put in a check mark, instead of filling in circle," or if the voter instead circled the candidate's name, the ballot would be disqualified, she said.

If there are enough errant ballots to make a difference, a candidate could ask the judge to validate them so as not to disenfranchise the voters, she said.

But Salvatore said she did not expect more than a handful of such cases.

Hoffman has assessed the Democratic Committee a $490 fee to conduct the recount.

On Tuesday, Mark Harris, director of county election operations, pulled the plastic sheets off the AVC Advantage machines and made sure printouts of their vote totals were available for review by representatives of each party.

Each machine is sealed in five places to prevent tampering, he said.

The last sizable recount in the county was in 2003, Harris said, when Fred Madden - now the county Democratic party chairman - defeated State Sen. George Geist, a Republican who was running for re-election in the Fourth District.

Geist lost by about 50 votes, and the recount did not alter the election's outcome.

As in 2003, "we're not expecting any change in the results," Mark Cimino, an attorney for the local GOP organization, said as he skimmed the printouts. But the party has people standing by during a recount, and they "are remaining vigilant," he said.

Cimino's counterpart, Justin Kolman, a Democratic Party worker, had no comment.

Harris said he had never heard of a recount that uncovered irregularities caused by voting machines. "But a recheck-recount is actually a healthy thing," he said, because it shows that the system works.


Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.