NORTH SMITHFIELD – It’s been a nail-biter, and it might not be over.
Less than three hours after posting results showing School Committee member Paul Jones leading by just three votes over Town Councilor Douglas Osier in a three-way race for town administrator, the Board of Elections again updated their figures.
And now, Osier has the advantage.
The two are competing for a spot on the November ballot against longtime Town Councilor Paul Zwolenski, who as of 7:30 p.m. Thursday evening, had secured 41.1 percent of votes cast, with 520. Osier now has 384 or 30.4 percent, and Jones has 361 votes, or 28.5.
But the results are unofficial, and according to Jones, they still don’t appear accurate.
“I know, for sure, we submitted at least 588 mail ballots,” Jones said.
Thursday night’s tally accounted for only 435.
For the anxious candidates, it’s just the latest shift of results in a tight contest with an unprecedented wait time, in an unprecedented election year.
In normal times, victory celebrations take place the same day ballots are cast, with candidates meeting up with supporters to watch as the numbers come in.
But this year, a surge in mail ballots has led to delays in determining the victors. And more than 150 North Smithfield residents took advantage of early voting, a new option offered at Town Hall as a means to avoid crowds amid COVID-19.
Statewide, as of 1 p.m. on Tuesday, 16,749 in-person votes had been cast, and 32,103 mail ballots had been returned to the Board of Elections.
For the candidates, that’s meant two days – and counting – of sitting home hitting the “refresh,” button on the Board of Elections website, and wondering what the future would hold.
“We’re still not there yet,” Jones said, sighing, on Thursday.
The administrator race was the sole decision for North Smithfield voters in the primary held Tuesday, Sept. 8. Current Administrator Gary Ezovski announced earlier this year that he would not be seeking another term.
Zwolenski, the former town planner who served on the council since 2004, watched with a small group of friends and family at Gator’s Pub as results came in from the town’s three polling places. The 67-year-old currently works as assistant professor at Johnson and Wales University College of Business.
While all results thus far have shown the council veteran with a decisive lead, the celebration was tempered Tuesday night as some 700 votes remained unaccounted for.
On Wednesday, early ballots were added to the tally, putting Osier with just a 25 vote lead over Jones. But with 500 mail ballots at stake, the outcome was still far from certain.
Mail ballots were technically added to count on the Board of Elections website at 5 p.m. Thursday evening. They showed Jones in the lead by just three votes.
And they were wrong.
Osier, who is currently serving his first term on the council, is manager of business intelligence for a nonprofit healthcare provider.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Osier told NRI NOW, reacting to a count that showed him out of the race.
The problem, Osier said, was that some 170 in-person votes had dropped from the unofficial results – exactly the number cast at machine #2 at North Smithfield Elementary School, one of three town polling places in the primary contest. The candidate’s poll runner took a picture of the machine #2 results from the polling place door – and the figures match exactly.
For Jones, it meant several hours where it showed him as the victor.
“When I saw the numbers earlier today I thought it seemed a little off,” Jones said, adding of Osier’s assessment, “It made sense.”
Jones is the owner of Providence-based The Care Concierge of New England. He was first appointed to the School Committee in 2016, and secured an elected seat in the 2018 elections.
“Either way, I’m proud of the campaign that I ran,” Jones told NRI NOW. “If I make it through great, if this is the end of the line, that’s ok too.”
Once all of the votes are finally counted, the top two candidates will move on to the General Election scheduled for Tuesday, November 3. And thanks to changes passed in 2018 slated to take effect this year, the victor will served in the administrator’s office for four years rather than two.
The turnout could put the town on track to match the last time there was a three-way contest for the role in 2010, when the late Ernest Alter and Shawn Kane ran against Paulette Hamilton, and 1,387 North Smithfield voters weighed in.
Update: With the final count in, Osier and Zwolenski will move on to the General Election. Read more here.