Recount Starts, but Without Va. Ballots

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The recount in the race for Virginia attorney general began yesterday in courtrooms and local elections offices across the state, but because of rules set earlier by a three-judge panel overseeing the process, very few votes were actually recounted.

Instead, thousands of political activists across Virginia combed through ballot tapes looking for problems.

A spokesman for Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who was certified the winner of the Nov. 8 election by 323 votes out of 1.94 million cast, said his margin appears to have widened by a few votes. But attorneys for Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D), who requested the recount, are expected to raise challenges today before the panel.

The two-day recount is not expected to be completed until today, after state elections officials certify the count and after the judges hear any challenges.

The scene at Loudoun County Circuit Court yesterday was played out across Virginia. Dozens of elections officials and party loyalists filled a courtroom where optical scan machines sat idle because the judicial panel banned manual recounts of such machines in all precincts except eight in Gloucester County and one in Lynchburg.

As a result, ballots were not rerun through the machines. Instead, elections officials, sitting at tables like so many accountants, compared the numbers from poll books and printout tapes. One Democratic observer and one Republican observer stood looking over their shoulders to monitor their every move. Then the elections workers entered the numbers on a sheet of paper that Virginia State Police ferried to Richmond.

Not a single vote changed in Loudoun, and the recount was all but over by lunchtime.

Four types of voting machines had been used in the election, complicating matters. Voters in most of the state used optical scanners and touch-screen or lever machines. Individual ballots cannot be recounted on touch-screen and lever machines, but the results can be double-checked from printouts. The judges decided not to rerun ballots through the optical scanners and punch-card machines.

The attorney general's race is the closest statewide election in modern history. State law permits a recount when the margin is less than one percentage point. In this race, the margin was 0.0166 of a percentage point.

Democratic observers allied with Deeds pinpointed discrepancies of just five votes in three precincts, apparently all the result of paper jams when ballots were fed into optical scanners.

The mistakes apparently occurred when poll workers took jammed ballots out of the optical scanner and either ran them through the machine again -- in effect, counting them twice -- or lifted the optical scanner and dropped them in by hand, meaning they were never counted at all.

The machines, which have been used in Loudoun since 1997, reportedly have an error rate of 1 in 4 million, according to county officials. About 60,000 votes were cast in the county in the attorney general's race.

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