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N.J. governor’s race is a pretty much even election. here’s what’s next for Murphy, Ciattarelli - NJ.com

They are separated by a cat’s whisker of a margin.

And anyone hoping for a resolution of the closest gubernatorial election in four decades will likely be disappointed.

As of 9:56 a.m., Gov. Phil Murphy was leading Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli by just 1,408 votes after a pause in voting at 3 a.m. that saw Ciattarelli up front by 1,193 votes. But 158 of the state’s 6,348 voting districts had still not been counted.

In Union County, for example — one of the state’s largest counties that votes heavily Democratic — 95% of the votes had been counted and reported in the governor’s election as of 11:23 p.m. Tuesday. But the county clerk’s office stopped counting votes at that time.

Before the vote count was halted there, Murphy had a sizable lead over Ciattarelli in Union County, with 76,737 votes reported for the incumbent Democrat and 48,502 votes reported for the Republican challenger.

At the same time across the state, not all counties have included early voting results in the vote tallies that have been reported, nor have some included vote-by-mail counts. In fact, clerks can accept ballots postmarked by Election Day until Nov. 8.

In Ocean County, which came out strong for Ciatarrelli, the outstanding votes remaining include the last batch of vote-by-mail ballots placed in drop box locations on Tuesday, as well as vote-by-mail ballots that come to the board of elections between now and Monday. The vote by mail ballots postmarked as of Tuesday and placed in drop box locations by 8 p.m. that night will be counted immediately, said County Clerk Scott Colabella.

“We may do an update today, it depends how far they get with processing those,” he said.

Provisional ballots everywhere, meanwhile, have yet to be counted. Provisional paper ballots are used when a voter whose eligibility to vote cannot be confirmed at the polls or if they have applied for a vote-by-mail ballot. If, after the election, it is determined that the voter who cast the provisional ballot was eligible to vote, only then ballot will be counted.

On top of the outstanding ballots, there is the almost certain expectation by both camps to call for a recount.

New Jersey does not have an automatic recount law, but the candidates — or interested groups — may request one. A recount request is triggered by the filing of a suit in state Superior Court in the counties within 17 days of Election Day.

All of that means that a winner will probably not be declared anytime soon.

Both candidates early Wednesday morning acknowledged a long road ahead.

In a brief speech just after midnight, Murphy told supporters in Asbury Park, “We’re gonna wait for every vote to be counted. That’s how our democracy works.”

Ciattarelli, a former member of the state Assembly, told supporters in Bridgewater he had prepared “one hell of a victory speech,” but noted they were winning. Noting the time it will take to process the provisional and vote-by-mail tallies, he also voiced patience before he could declare they had won. “We want every legal vote to be counted,” he said.

Ben Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said it could take upward of a week to resolve the election, and even longer if there is a recount.

That’s what happened in 1981, when Democrat Jim Florio and Republican Tom Kean remained in a deadlock for nearly a month, before Kean finally emerged as the winner. It took 27 days.

“We have to understand that these things don’t get resolved on election night anymore. It continues when until all the votes are counted,” said Dworkin, voting the early voting and absentee ballots that are now hallmarks of the election. “It’s no longer an Election Day it’s an election season and we have to get used to that.”

What could take even longer is possible litigation. Dworkin said one thing to remember about the ‘81 recount was that Florio didn’t sue afterwards. “They didn’t contest it after the recount,” he recalled.

Florio, who would later be elected governor in 1989, ultimately conceded defeat to Kean after the recount — despite the extraordinarily tight margin — without a court battle to argue the results.

“The people have selected Tom Kean,” Florio said, nearly a month after the election.

The immediate attention today will be to collect all the ballots, Dworkin said.

“The counting continues,” he said. “Despite failings and glitches, nobody is contesting that this was stolen. That’s not what these guys are talking about.”

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Ted Sherman may be reached at tsherman@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @TedShermanSL.

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