Democratic incumbent Stephen Berryhill was re-elected to his council seat by a single vote. Challenger Vincent Ceroli’s request for a recount will be granted Tuesday.
By Matt Skoufalos
UPDATED: Camden County Elections Commissioner Robert Venuti said the recount confirmed Berryhill was the leading vote-getter, but the results are pending judicial review.
On Tuesday, Berryhill said that he was informed he’d won by a margin of some five votes, and that his opponent would not pursue additional legal challenges.
More details may follow if the court case persists—ed.
As the returns came in on Election Day, Haddon Heights Councilman Stephen Berryhill trailed Republican challenger Vincent Ceroli by some 44 votes at the polls.
When the mail-in ballots were tabulated the next day, that margin had shrunk to three.
After the provisional ballots were added up, Berryhill, who had extended his congratulations to the opposition about a week earlier, found himself certified the winner by a single vote, 784-783.
That prompted a legal challenge from Ceroli’s camp, and last week, Camden County Superior Court Judge Mary Beth Kramer upheld the request for a recount.
By Tuesday afternoon, nearly a full month after the polls have closed, both men should have their answer.
In addition to recounting the ballots from the Haddon Heights council election, on Tuesday the Camden County Board of Elections will also certify returns from the mayoral election in Chesilhurst, which was decided by only three votes.
Robert Venuti, who chairs the Election Commission, said recounts are uncommon in Camden County, and are performed only upon judicial order. Even less commonly does a recount overturn previously certified results, he said.
The two recounts the board will perform Tuesday will be the first in Camden County history in which vote-by-mail ballots will be tabulated electronically, a circumstance necessitated by the increasing popularity of voting by mail, Venuti said.
“We used to count absentee ballots by hand in the Camden County Boathouse,” he said. “With the mail-in ballots growing, I’d have to rent out Convention Hall in Philadelphia.”
Venuti said the counting machine is “quite a piece of equipment” that’s worked as advertised in managing the increased volume of mail-in ballots.
“Now we’re going to see how it’s going to work out with something like this in a very close race,” he said.
Election commissioners will check the counts from voting machines, then from mail-in ballots, and finally, from provisional ballots. Venuti anticipates that if any discrepancy arises, it will be in the way the machines read the mail-in ballots. Voters who checked the circles next to their candidate’s names instead of filling them in could have caused the mail-in reader to disregard their selections.
“We’re now going to count every ballot by hand,” Venuti said. “If the numbers between the machine and the hand count don’t agree, it’s a problem.
“If that machine didn’t pick up the check…it may go back to the judge because the intent is there,” he said.
Voter apathy, mail-in ballots on the rise
Venuti attributed the closeness of the races in Haddon Heights and Chesilhurst to lackluster voter turnout, and as the longest-serving election commissioner in the state, he’s seen 30 years of races to know.
Only 21 percent of eligible voters in the county voted in the 2015 general elections, which were admittedly a low-profile affair.
Haddon Heights had a contested mayoral election and two council seats up for grabs this year, and still fewer than 30 percent of eligible voters participated in the process.
“You’ve always had a number of people who didn’t care for politics and who want nothing to do with it, and I think that number’s growing,” Venuti said.
But of the 68,654 voters who voted in Camden County this year, 16,607 of them voted by mail—one-third as many as the 51,007 who visited their polling places in person on Election Day. During the primaries, the number of mail-in ballots even exceeded in-person votes, Venuti said.
“The mail-in ballot is being really promoted by politicians,” he said. “They’re going around asking people to vote by mail, and giving them the applications to send in.”
Mail-in ballots are also postage-paid, and may be submitted weeks before elections are held, Venuti said.
The lone Democrat on the Republican-majority Haddon Heights Council, Berryhill said he has a good working relationship with his colleagues across the aisle. If his re-election is upheld, Berryhill has a pair of special projects in mind for the upcoming term.
The first involves a new strategy for addressing foreclosed and abandoned properties within the borough. The second is to help usher in advocacy programs to guide addicts charged in the commission of crimes with alternative sentencing to support their recoveries.
“I would love to win, but if I lose, I’ll respect the process,” Berryhill said.