UPDATE: 7 p.m. Wednesday: AP calls race for Murphy; governor to deliver victory speech in Asbury Park

TRENTON – Gov. Phil Murphy edged ahead of Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli Wednesday morning in a governor’s race that remains essentially deadlocked and might not be decided for days.

Murphy has gradually grown an advantage over the course of Wednesday as votes trickle in from election-day and mail-in voting around New Jersey. As of mid-afternoon the Democrat had a lead of 15,083 votes, just 0.6% of the votes counted so far.

Murphy is at 49.9% and Ciattarelli at 49.3%, with three third-party candidates and write-ins sharing 0.8%. More than 2.4 million votes in the race have been counted so far.

There are 146 precincts statewide that haven’t yet reported results in seven counties. They include 56 precincts in Essex County, including 23 in Newark; 40 precincts in Camden County; and 18 precincts in Union County, including 10 in Elizabeth.

Hunterdon County’s totals last night didn't reflect about 4,700 early in-person votes, but those were added by the clerk a bit after 8 a.m. Ciattarelli gained 2,451 votes to 2,192 for Murphy, a margin of 52% to 47% in a county that had been 61% to 38% in favor of Ciattarelli in its Election Day and vote-by-mail counts.

Also this morning, Somerset County added 12,709 mail-in ballots to its count, including 8,980 for Murphy and 3,509 for Ciattarelli. That put Murphy ahead in Somerset County, similar to how mail-in votes flipped a late-night deficit into an advantage for Murphy in Bergen County.

Mercer County added 23,687 vote-by-mail ballots in the early afternoon, including 19,225 for Murphy and 4,212 for Ciattarelli.

Vote-by-mail ballots sent through the U.S. Postal Service that were properly postmarked by 8 p.m. Tuesday will be counted so long as counties receive them by next Monday, Nov. 8.

And it isn’t clear how many provisional paper ballots have been cast. It could be a significant number, given that some polling places has trouble operating early Tuesday, the first election with electronic poll books and new voting machines in many counties.

Provisional ballots will not start being counted until next Tuesday, Nov. 9.

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For all the historical parallels between a potential Murphy win and the 1977 election, which was the last time a Democrat won reelection, or the 1985 election, the last time New Jersey elected a governor from the same party as the president, it’s now the election in between that’s most relevant.

In 1981, Tom Kean defeated Jim Florio in the closest gubernatorial race in state history – by just 1,797 votes, in a race with turnout exceeding 2.3 million. Kean wasn’t declared the winner of the election until Dec. 2, a day after Florio finally conceded.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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