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.
Deeds activists dashed out of the courtroom with cell phones pressed to their ears, calling campaign headquarters in Richmond to report the challenges they had raised. They said they hoped that Deeds's attorneys would ask the court to order every ballot recounted in each precinct where even one vote was not counted.
McDonnell activists were close behind them, calling their campaign headquarters to report their challenges to the Deeds challenges.
But after waiting several hours for instructions, the Deeds observers said campaign headquarters told them to drop all challenges.
"We're not going to enter court for optical scan ballots," said Mark Bergman, a Deeds spokesman. "It's based on the evidence we have in our hands and the lateness of the hour."
But Bergman said challenges will be raised today when the judicial panel in Richmond convenes to address questions raised during the recount.
"I wish this was a full recount, but it was only a reverification and a checking of the paperwork," said Robert Moses, vice chairman of the Loudoun County Democratic Committee.
J. Randall Minchew, chairman of the Loudoun County Republican Committee, argued that running the ballot tapes through the optical scanners would only increase the risk of human error.
Elsewhere in the state, the recount may have picked up a few votes for McDonnell.
Initial results from a few places where the votes were counted by hand show that the margin widened by 32 votes, said John Phillippe, a McDonnell spokesman. Even in Virginia Beach, the only locality in the state where punch-card ballots are used, there were few disputes under rules spelling out when hanging chads and other abnormalities are to be counted, he said.
The victor will take office Jan. 14, and both have been preparing for the transition. Deeds and McDonnell are former prosecutors, and each has served in the Virginia General Assembly for 14 years. The men largely agree on public safety changes, including efforts to strengthen punishments for sex offenders, but they disagree on some social issues. For example, McDonnell is a leader in the state's antiabortion movement, and Deeds believes abortion should remain legal.