In a conference room at the Fairfax County Government Center yesterday, election officials pored over long rolls of computer printouts listing votes from Tuesday's election. They examined paper ballots, too, and recalculated basic math.
Behind them, about a dozen Democratic and Republican loyalists witnessed the progress, paying particular attention to votes recorded for Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath), the Democratic candidate for attorney general, and his GOP opponent, Del. Robert F. "Bob" McDonnell (Virginia Beach).
Two days after the election in Virginia, there was still no clear winner in the race to determine who will be the state's top lawyer -- a contest that is the closest statewide race in memory -- and both sides are monitoring carefully as local election officials across the state check and double-check the tallies.
Last night, McDonnell was ahead by 947 votes out of more than 1.9 million.
McDonnell has declared victory. The Deeds campaign maintains that the race is too close to call and is waiting for the Virginia State Board of Elections to certify the results Nov. 28. Both men have put together transition teams.
"As we've been saying all along, this thing is tight as a tick as we need to make sure every vote is counted," said Mark Bergman, a spokesman for a team of lawyers that is assisting Deeds. "Bob McDonnell doesn't get to choose who the next AG of Virginia is. The people of Virginia do."
About noon yesterday, McDonnell was leading by 1,520 votes of about 1.9 million cast. By dinnertime, McDonnell remained ahead, but 960 votes separated the candidates. It was down to the 947 count by early evening.
Jean Jensen, State Board of Elections secretary, said yesterday that no major problems have been discovered, but occasionally weary elections officers make mistakes when recording vote counts late at night, or other errors occur. The point of the canvass, she said, is to find and correct any mistakes.
"We have over 2,200 polling places, so that's a lot of information," Jensen said. "You can have change of three votes here and 27 here. It starts to add up."
For example, Fairfax County election officials said they discovered that votes cast on one machine were not included in the unofficial tally sent to the state Tuesday night. As a result, votes cast by about 200 people were not initially counted.
Under Virginia law, the loser may request a recount within 10 days after the state board certifies the results. A three-judge panel would oversee the efforts. A final count could take weeks.
If a recount is held, it would be only the second time in a Virginia statewide election. After the 1989 gubernatorial election, a recount confirmed Democrat L. Douglas Wilder's victory over J. Marshall Coleman.
Joshua G. Behr, a professor of political science at Old Dominion University, said a recount appears inevitable. He said political observers are watching closely to see whether Virginia Democrats, buoyed by Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's win over former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R) in the gubernatorial election, will capture another statewide office.
"There is so much at stake here. The nation's watching this," Behr said. "I see a call for a recount either way. I don't see anyone conceding in the near future."
Both campaigns posted volunteers at local election offices Wednesday and yesterday, and each side said its observers did not report any problems. But there was some tension at the Fairfax County office.
Lawyer Patricia Paoletta, who was a Republican observer, said she was looking over an election worker's shoulder when she was asked to move against a wall.
"I argued that we had a legal right to observe the canvass and that the plain meaning of observe meant you had to be able to see the numbers," Paoletta said.
The vice chairman of the electoral board, Larry Byrne, asked her to move. Byrne's wife, Leslie L. Byrne, unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket.
Byrne said he asked Paoletta to move because having observers too close "delays the process."
"They are allowed to observe, it but that doesn't mean they are allowed to stand over anyone's shoulder," he said.