By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006
The outcome of Virginia's U.S. Senate race could now hinge on the state's system for counting and recounting election votes.
With Democrat James Webb leading by about 7,300 votes, Sen. George Allen (R) can request a recount if he is trailing by roughly the same amount after the official results are certified Nov. 27. But before Allen decides whether to pursue a recount, the state must complete a routine process conducted after every election for turning more than 2 million electronic, absentee and provisional ballots into a final, official vote total.
"We feel very prepared," said James Alcorn, policy adviser to the State Board of Elections, which oversees the local governments that do most of the vote-counting.
Attorneys for Webb and Allen rushed to county election boards across the state yesterday to monitor the canvass. Although nearly all of the votes have been counted once, local election officials will retabulate the results to look for possible accounting or math errors.
Local election boards will also decide which provisional ballots should be counted. Those are usually given to voters who show up at the wrong precinct or demand to vote even though their name is missing from registration files.
State officials could not determine yesterday how many provisional ballots were cast. But Allen's attorneys said there could be as many as 6,000.
Webb and Allen advisers said yesterday that the margin separating the candidates is almost certain to change during the canvass. It is not uncommon for a candidate to gain several thousand votes, according to elected officials and a review of election results.
Last year, Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) woke up the day after the election with a lead of about 3,300 votes. When the canvass ended the next Monday, his lead had dwindled to about 350 votes. In the 1993 governor's race, when Democrat Mary Sue Terry ran against Allen, she picked up about 4,000 votes between Election Day and the certification.
"It all depends on how many math errors there are," McDonnell said yesterday. "Things get transposed, people read things wrong or call them in wrong, so there could be significant swings over the next week."
But Democrats say they doubt that Allen can collect enough votes to put him in the lead.
"We have great confidence in the Virginia process. We have never had a winner change from election night," said former governor Mark R. Warner (D).
Earlier in the day, Allen adviser Ed Gillespie told reporters in Richmond that Allen wouldn't concede or make a decision about a recount until the canvass is completed.
"The fact is, we always knew this was going to be close," Gillespie said.
In Virginia, voters use either touch-screen voting machines or ballots that can be optically scanned. When polls close, precincts report their results to the local boards. The boards also count the absentee ballots and send both sets of results, which are unofficial, to the state elections board.
The day after the election, the canvass begins to put "new, fresh eyes" on the tallies submitted the night before. The canvass, which makes the vote tallies official, lasts seven days. The results are certified on the fourth Monday of November, Nov. 27 this year.
Lee Goodman, an attorney for the Republican Party of Virginia, is helping to oversee Allen's legal effort. He said yesterday that some small cities have already completed their canvasses.
At the Loudoun County registrar's office yesterday, eight canvassers pored over documents and receipts in a tiny supply room while officials from the local Republican and Democratic parties looked on. Their desks were strewn with envelopes, calculators and data sheets, as if they were working on their taxes.
Working in pairs, they logged the little mistakes they found -- missing signatures, blanks that should have been filled in and other errors made by sleepy-eyed poll workers who had filled out the paperwork late Tuesday.
"To us, it's just another election," said Til Bennie, vice chair of the county's electoral board. "We always do a thorough job, but this time it's especially important."
When the results are certified, the losing candidate has 10 days to request a recount if the winning margin is less than 1 percent. If the winner's lead is less than one-half of 1 percent, the state will pay for the recount, election officials said; otherwise, the contester would have to pay. Webb leads Allen by less than three-tenths of a percent.
A three-judge panel would then decide whether to grant the recount and how it should proceed. The panel would have one judge from the Circuit Court of Richmond and two others from other jurisdictions selected by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
There have been only two statewide recounts in Virginia.
Last year, McDonnell (R) edged state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) by 323 votes after a recount to become attorney general. In the 1989 gubernatorial election, a recount confirmed Democrat L. Douglas Wilder's victory over J. Marshall Coleman, the Republican candidate.
Larry Framme, a lawyer who headed Deeds's and Wilder's recount efforts, said residents shouldn't conjure up images of the Florida recount during the 2000 presidential race. That manual recount, by hand in some cases, occurred in a state with several methods of voting, including computer punch cards that had flaws.
"With current voting procedures, it's just not realistic to make [up the deficit] in a recount," Framme said. "The canvass is where the difference needs to be made up."
In Virginia, "a voter's eligibility to vote or any alleged irregularities cannot be called into question during a recount," according to the Board of Elections Web site.
"You would go back and look at the same thing looked at during the canvass," said Marc Elias, a lawyer for Webb's campaign.
But Alcorn said a panel of judges could order a recount of all optically scanned ballots "if a printout is not clear or at the request of the court."
Alcorn said "it would be up to lawyers to decide" what that provision means, because it has never been used.
Staff writer Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.