The mood was somber in the ballroom at Hilton Hasbrouck Heights. More than 200 Democrats had gathered the night of the election in expectation of landslide party victories across the board. Instead, they watched the unthinkable happen as results rolled in and county Democratic candidates were losing in every race.
About 10:30 p.m., with 40% of the machine ballot totals posted, the party chairman decided to try to boost morale. He applauded the projected winners in the District 37 state Senate and Assembly races, Gordon Johnson, Ellen Park and Shama Haider.
“We’re waiting for more numbers, and the governor is in a dogfight, but we’re going to wait and see,” Paul Juliano said.
Then he scurried back to the elevator to wait out the nail-biter with the candidates in a suite upstairs. Candidates from local races started to call it a night and headed for the doors. As the crowd thinned, more numbers came through, and they weren’t good.
In every race, including clerk, sheriff and two Board of Commissioner seats, votes still widely favored Republicans.
So the turnaround was stunning when, shortly before midnight, a group of candidates emerged from the elevator with Commissioner Chairman Steven Tanelli leading the way, smiling brightly and shaking hands.
Declaring themselves winners, they took to the stage, jubilant. Even then, the numbers on the Bergen County clerk’s website still showed them behind in the tally.
So what happened to turn the tide?
The answer was mail-in ballots. The numbers posted and updated on the official website throughout the night Tuesday were only from voting machines, said Sabrina Taranto, the elections division supervisor in the clerk’s office. It was nearly midnight when a new batch of more than 41,000 mail-in ballots was posted.
Late tallies raise suspicions
In an atmosphere of suspicion over elections, conspiracy theories were rampant on social media after the flood of late votes. The attention was nationwide, driven by the closely watched gubernatorial race, one of two in the country.
A Facebook post published Nov. 3 in a group called "Audit NJ #AuditNJ" shows two screenshots side by side. Both depict a New York Times county-level breakdown of New Jersey election results.
In one screenshot, Jack Ciattarelli is shown as having 52% of the vote in Bergen County, with 100% of precincts reporting. In the other screenshot, purportedly taken seven hours later, Phil Murphy is up by more than 40,000 votes.
NJ governor's race: Ciattarelli hasn't conceded, and Murphy says not doing so is 'dangerous'
"Tell me you believe in voted (sic) fraud w/o telling me??" reads text in the image.
"STOLEN," the post's caption says.
And the confusion wasn't just among ordinary folks on social media. National pundits were unsure how to react to the influx of ballots. Bergen County officials did nothing to explain where they came from, or why they arrived so late.
The official normally in charge of elections, Bergen County Clerk John Hogan, was up for reelection and recused from the process. His deputy, Steve Chong, was out of the country and unavailable for comment this week.
Separate offices for machine votes and mail-in votes
Taranto said that on Tuesday her office did what it was responsible for: ensuring the tabulation of the ballots cast on machines in polling places throughout the county. Those late numbers from the mail-in ballots were sent to her office for posting from the Board of Elections.
“We do this part and they do that part,” she said. “The reason for the confusion and suspicion was because the media only reported a portion of the totals. They didn’t do their due diligence and misconstrued what '100 percent' meant. We have nothing to do with the vote by mail.”
She said the file her office received from the elections board was posted on the site in the same way it always is, “on the home page.”
How votes by mail were counted
The additional 41,902 ballots had been received by the Board of Elections via mail, drop box or hand-delivery to the county office through Monday, Nov. 1. The total also included ballots received in the earlier of two mail deliveries on Tuesday.
“Those ballots were from the whole month since the mail-in ballots had been sent out, but they weren’t counted until Election Day because the law says we can’t open them until then,” said elections board Chairman Richard Miller.
Miller said he didn’t know exactly how many ballots they would be processing on Election Day, “but no one had asked.” They ensured the ballots were legitimate, tallied them and sent the total to the county clerk’s office shortly after 9 p.m. to be posted.
Could it have been explained better?
From there it was up to Taranto to publish, he said. But according to Taranto, it’s not that simple, because the agencies each use different software and the mail-in ballot tally has to be manually integrated.
As a consequence, a separate chart for votes-by-mail was posted by midnight on the Bergen County elections website, but without any clear language on either chart to indicate it showed only one portion of the votes.
The software for the two systems is “not compatible in a way that we can just go ‘OK, here’s everything that we got,’ ” Taranto said. “Throughout the following days, we integrate those numbers manually."
Last year, there was a mandate that required virtual access to observe the process, Miller said. Without that requirement, no stream was in place, but the public was free to come in person to see it because “we want to make sure the process is open and fair.”
"A PDF file that we upload from Board of Elections was on our website before we left," Taranto said. "People are saying at 2 a.m. the votes changed. No. On election night both the vote-by-mail and what the county clerk's office receives and tabulates ... at the end of every election night it is my goal and our responsibility to report 100 percent of the ballots cast at the polling locations on Election Day. That is the county clerk's responsibility, and that was done as it's always been done."
She said votes from 70 municipalities in the geographically large county must be driven to the county office in Hackensack. There, officials do multiple updates throughout the night "because we don't want to keep voters in suspense."
About that '100%'
A vote totals chart that indicated "100%" but did not include mail-in votes was there, as it always is, "so people know nothing is missing because 70 towns have to be brought in."
Many people misinterpreted the 100% to mean that all votes had been counted.
Bergen County, NJ reported 219,894 votes last night at midnight - 100% reporting, with 52% for @Jack4NJ. This morning Bergen County has 261,528 votes (40k more votes) and now shows @GovMurphy as the declared winner of that county. Share this. Make them report it. FULL AUDIT. pic.twitter.com/hfzfY5TnKj
— Ian Smith (@iansmithfitness) November 3, 2021
Two more batches of numbers were posted on Nov. 3 with ballots picked up from drop boxes on Nov. 2, along with mail-ins received Wednesday. One batch had 1,955 votes shortly after 7 p.m. and another had 4,181 later that night.
After all of the mail-in ballots were tallied, an additional 8,000 provisional ballots were to be tallied on Wednesday, Nov. 10. Those are paper ballots filled out at a polling place because of various issues or discrepancies. The board needs to ensure that they are valid before tallying them.
Miller said he understands the confusion as people watched the shift on Election Day but said everything was “done in a transparent manner” and that the board is made up of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.
“I’m a Republican commissioner. I was thrilled when I saw the numbers coming in, personally,” Miller said. “I knew what the vote-by-mail numbers were, and we gave them to [the clerk’s office] and she put them into the system, and that’s when the numbers changed.”
Katie Sobko is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ election 2021: Murphy vs. Ciattarelli race drew audit calls