A dramatic week-long vote certification process put Fairfax County’s Electoral Board in the spotlight, as voters waited to see which candidate would emerge victorious in the race for Virginia attorney general.
With all localities certifying their results as of midnight Tuesday, Democrat Mark Herring is ahead of Republican Mark Obenshain by 164 votes, out of 2.2 million votes cast statewide. The state Board of Elections has until Nov. 25 to certify the statewide results, after which point a recount is expected, meaning the winner may not be confirmed until December.
Each candidate is proceeding as if he will be the ultimate victor.
Declaring victory on Tuesday night, Herring said the “thorough and extensive” canvassing process ensured that all votes were counted.
“The margin was close, but it is clear that Virginians have chosen me to serve as the next Attorney General,” he said. He announced his transition team on Wednesday.
However, Obenshain is not conceding and also announced his own transition team on Wednesday.
“With an historically narrow margin, and the vote tally yet to be completed, the responsible thing to do is to prepare for a potential transition,” he said.
Fairfax County’s vote-counting process had a big impact on the race, as the results swung back and forth between the two candidates as localities around the state reviewed and updated their election night reports.
On Nov. 8, Fairfax County election officials found that about 3,200 absentee ballots from the 8th Congressional District had been scanned and counted, but not added to the countywide vote totals. The error was corrected and the statewide vote totals updated Nov. 9, which, along with similar corrections from other areas, put Herring back into the lead.
“This was a normal certification process,” said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University who specializes in elections.
“There are always errors,” he said, and checks are put into place to catch those errors.
What has made this election so unusual, he said, is the combination of Virginia’s high level of transparency on the process combined with a very close race that made people pay attention and discuss the issues via social media.
“In some instances social media were ahead of the election officials in identifying errors,” McDonald said. While this “gives the impression of incompetence,” he is confident the election officials would have found the mistake on their own in the course of completing the canvass.
The instance in Fairfax County was “human error,” and something that happens in most elections, he said.
“We should be very proud of our election officials and the way they handled themselves,” he said.
After correcting the absentee precinct issue, Fairfax election officials moved on to reviewing the 489 provisional ballots, accepting 271 and rejecting 218. Of those, 160 votes were recorded for Herring, roughly equating to the margin he is now leading by.
“We have scrupulously followed the spirit and the letter of the law as we understand it,” said Electoral Board Secretary Brian Schoeneman, speaking at a press conference following the provisional ballot review. “We are confident that we have gotten this right.”
The recount process will most likely focus on paper ballots that were recorded as an “undervote,” McDonald said, meaning that the voter cast a vote for governor or other offices, but was not recorded as voting for either attorney general candidate.
The paper ballots can be reviewed to determine whether there was any attempt at casting a vote that wasn’t detected by the optical scan machine. McDonald estimates that there are at least 11,000 such ballots. Undervotes on the touch-screen machines can’t be reviewed.