By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2005
RICHMOND, Dec. 21 -- A judicial panel certified Republican Del. Robert F. McDonnell as the winner of the Virginia attorney general's race at the completion of a statewide recount Wednesday, six weeks after the election.
The State Board of Elections announced that McDonnell had widened his sliver of a lead over Democratic Sen. R. Creigh Deeds by 37 votes. Still, this remained the closest statewide election in modern Virginia history, with 360 votes separating the two men out of 1.94 million cast.
The final, certified vote was 970,981 votes for McDonnell and 970,621 votes for Deeds.
Deeds called McDonnell about 7:15 p.m. to concede the race. McDonnell said that, in the two-minute call, Deeds congratulated him on his victory, told him he thought he would do a good job as attorney general, inquired after his family and wished him a merry Christmas.
McDonnell said he has spent about 80 percent of his time since the initial post-election certification preparing to assume office. He said he has prepared close to 30 packages of legislation that he expects to have introduced when the General Assembly convenes Jan. 11, three days before the inauguration.
All involve issues that McDonnell discussed while campaigning: laws designed to combat sexual violence, drug dealing, identity theft and gang violence, and measures to protect property rights and address homeland security, he said.
McDonnell, of Virginia Beach, and Deeds, of Bath County, spent years and, together, more than $9 million campaigning.
The two men have known each other as colleagues for many years, and their campaign was civil. Each is a former prosecutor and has served in the General Assembly for 14 years. The men largely agreed on public safety changes, including efforts to strengthen punishments for sex offenders, but they disagreed on some social issues. For example, McDonnell is a leader in the state's antiabortion movement, and Deeds said he believes abortion should remain legal.
In the end, the decision about who had won was reached in a windowless jury room in the basement of the Richmond Circuit Court, where attorneys, accountants and campaign observers monitored the count and noshed on Christmas cookies laid out on a corner table.
Reflecting his confidence in the outcome, McDonnell by midafternoon had arranged to address the attorney general's staff Thursday morning and to announce his deputy. He said that he had his invitations to the inauguration already printed and that they would be mailed Thursday morning.
"It's been 6 1/2 weeks of overtime," said McDonnell, who was present during most of the recount, huddling with his attorneys and aides.
Deeds had requested the state-paid recount after the Nov. 8 election. State law permits recounts when the margin is less than 1 percent. In addition, both men had been allotted space in a state office building for a transition team and split about $100,000 in state funds for related expenses.
The recount was conducted under the supervision of a three-judge panel and began Tuesday in local election offices and courtrooms across the state. Deeds had attempted to have all ballots rerun through the same machines on which they were tabulated on Election Day.
But the judicial panel rejected his motion, and paper ballots were the only ones that were recounted in most places. In localities with optical scanners, the most widely used among four types of voting methods in the state, officials merely double-checked the math by comparing totals on computerized ballot tapes and poll books recording how many people voted.
Then, state police picked up sealed boxes holding the results from each jurisdiction and ferried them to state election officials in Richmond to certify. Most arrived in cardboard boxes sealed with packing tape, although one local election board sent the results in a large Tupperware container, said Jean Jensen, secretary of the State Board of Elections.
A small auditorium where jurors typically gather to await their assignments was cleared to allow state election officials to work at six large tables. At each table were two state workers opening the boxes and recording the results, two observers acting on behalf of the candidates and an accountant.
Attorneys representing McDonnell and Deeds roamed the room, dashing from table to table as minor problems arose. The slightest deviation from instructions -- a form that was not initialed properly, illegible handwriting, a document placed in the wrong envelope, or a bewildering, messy worksheet that looked like someone's misplaced homework -- required attorneys to confer.
In the end, the changes were minimal.
McDonnell said he thought the recount was worthwhile, despite the change of only 37 votes and the cost of more than $100,000 to taxpayers, $300,000 in legal fees and staff salary for McDonnell and a similar sum for Deeds.
"It's not about 37 votes," he said. "It's about the fairness and accuracy of the election."
The recount attracted the attention of at least one soldier serving in Baghdad. McDonnell's daughter, Jeanine, 24, a second lieutenant in the Army, called him on his cell phone about 2 p.m. in Richmond, 10 p.m. in Baghdad, to ask whether he had the results yet. The day before the recount, McDonnell said, she had gone out with her unit in a convoy and been shot at.