Prince William County's Gainesville District has a reputation for scrappy politics. Considering the fallout from Tuesday's GOP primary, that reputation is well earned.
The narrow 11-vote victory of incumbent Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III (R) has prompted calls for a recount by one of the losers, gripes that a third candidate acted as a spoiler in the campaign and a complaint by elections officials about the conduct of one voter at the polls.
Par for the course, in other words, for Gainesville, which has played host to some of the premier political fights in recent Prince William history. The supervisor seat for the district has been passed back and forth between various factions over the years, with the results sometimes hinging on a handful of votes.
In Tuesday's Republican primary, which was held to determine who would face Democrat Gary Friedman in November, Wilbourn defeated slow-growth activist Martha W. Hendley by 11 votes, according to official results. A third candidate, Manassas lawyer Kevin P. Childers, attracted less than 17 percent of vote.
In going over the primary tallies Wednesday, however, elections officials found that results phoned in by election precincts were missing one vote each for Hendley and Wilbourn. The updated tally gave Wilbourn 1,223 votes and Hendley 1,212.
Officials also discovered a problem with absentee ballots. Wallace Covington, secretary of the Prince William Electoral Board, said a new vote-reading machine used this year for the first time did not count four absentee ballots, which are now contained in a sealed envelope that cannot be opened without a judge's order.
Thus the call for a recount by Hendley, which would require just such an order. The defeated candidate said that she doesn't expect a recount to change the primary's outcome but that the discrepancies found so far raise questions about accuracy.
"If it's just four ballots that are at question, mathematically it couldn't change things," Hendley said. "But you just don't know until you go through the exercise."
Hendley has 10 days from last Thursday to file a formal petition in Prince William County Circuit Court requesting a recount, officials said. If a judge grants the request, officials may then examine the 61 absentee ballots and all others for errors.
Then there is the matter of the T-shirt. Covington said election officials have asked the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office to investigate whether Charlie DeGraw, of Haymarket, violated Virginia elections law by wearing a Wilbourn campaign shirt at the Evergreen precinct polling place.
Covington said precinct officers stopped DeGraw as he tried to vote while wearing the shirt because election law bans campaign materials within 40 feet of a polling place. Covington said that after both he and Wilbourn traveled to the precinct to talk to DeGraw, he agreed to turn the shirt inside out and was allowed to enter a ballot box.
But Covington said that when DeGraw exited the voting booth, he had turned the shirt back the other way. "He was like Superman, I guess," Covington said.
Elections officials allege that the incident was a misdemeanor violation of Virginia election law and filed a complaint after the primary with the commonwealth's attorney. The prosecutor handling the case could not be reached last week, and DeGraw declined to comment.
"We try to avoid stuff like this as much as possible, giving people as many chances as possible to follow the law," Covington said. "It's certainly not anything that we wanted to see happen."
Such controversies are nothing new in Gainesville, which has a long history of close races and heated politics.
Intense local opposition helped persuade the Walt Disney Co., for example, to drop plans earlier this decade for a historical theme park near Haymarket, while an earlier fight over a shopping mall outside Manassas National Battlefield Park prompted congressional intervention.
"Whether it's an election or a major development case, people are very involved in Gainesville," said Friedman, the Democratic supervisor candidate. "People here take their civic responsibility very seriously. . . . It's indicative of the level of passion people have for these things."
Just four years ago, Wilbourn defeated incumbent Supervisor Bobby E. McManus and another candidate in the 1995 GOP primary. McManus -- who went on that year to launch a failed write-in campaign -- briefly toyed with running again in 1999.
Instead, McManus sided with Childers. Hendley complained after the primary that Childers should have dropped out of the contest to consolidate opposition to Wilbourn.
"If I thought this was going to be how it turned out, of course I wouldn't have done it," said Childers, who had joined Hendley in attacking Wilbourn's stands on development issues. "I don't think of myself as a spoiler."
Both Childers and Hendley said they would not actively support fellow Republican Wilbourn in his reelection bid. Hendley also retreated from earlier statements offering help to Friedman because he is a Democrat but said she expected many of her supporters to vote for him.
Friedman agreed, saying he would focus his campaign on Wilbourn's opposition to the "Rural Crescent" slow-growth plan approved last year by the Board of County Supervisors.
Wilbourn, who did not return calls from The Post, said at a victory party Tuesday night that he will take advantage of the coming months to better explain his views on development policies.
"The misstatement of my position on growth is what made it so close," Wilbourn said, referring to Hendley. "I did not have time to crystallize my position."
Staff writer Libby Copeland contributed to this report.