Virginia state Del. Timothy D. Hugo maintained a narrow lead Wednesday in the first of four scheduled election recounts that will determine which party holds power in the House of Delegates after a Democratic sweep in November.
Democrat Donte Tanner had shaved into Hugo's 106-vote lead in the 40th District by gaining a net of four votes on the Republican incumbent, leaving the difference at 102, by the time poll workers at Fairfax County's Circuit Court wrapped up for the day.
The roughly 40 poll workers from Fairfax and Prince William counties gathered in two jury rooms at 9 a.m. Wednesday to begin feeding about 30,000 ballots into scanning machines.
With eight observers from each party watching their every move, the workers unlocked the ballots that had been stored in large blue boxes since the Nov. 9 election and fed them into steadily whirring scanning machines.
In cases in which the voter's intent couldn't be determined by a machine, the workers scrutinized the ballot by hand, deliberating whether an X or circled name counted as a vote. If the representatives from both parties couldn't agree on who should get the vote, the ballots were sent to two circuit court judges on duty for a decision.
"That's the question: Does this mean they wanted this choice or did it mean they didn't want it?" Stephen M. Hunt, a Fairfax County electoral board member, said after a team of workers called attention to one ballot that had all Democratic choices but circles filled in for both Tanner and Hugo.
The ballot was ultimately flagged to be sent to the judges for review.
By the end of the day, there were five such contested ballots.
Recounts rarely change results. But this year, the mostly tedious process has taken on extra resonance with four close House races entering recounts and the 51-to-49 Republican majority in the House hanging in the balance.
Recounts are also scheduled later this month in: Del. David Yancey's 94th District, where the Republican leads Democrat Shelly Simonds by 10 votes; in the 28th District, where Republican Bob Thomas leads Democrat Joshua Cole by 82 votes; and in the 68th District, where Democrat Dawn Adams leads Del. Manoli Loupassi by 336 votes.
In the Hugo-Tanner recount, neither candidate was there to monitor the process. But they both stayed in touch with representatives there, who huddled around a tally board to decipher each new change in the vote count.
Tanner picked up a total of eight votes, all of them in Fairfax County precincts, including Centreville, Green Trails and Willow Springs.
Hugo gained four votes, with ballots from Fairfax's Clifton precinct and Prince William's Battlefield precinct.
"I greatly appreciate the hard work and service of the election officers, recount officials and volunteer observers on both sides, and am looking forward to having a final result tomorrow" Hugo said in a statement.
Tanner said he was happy to see no signs of foul play.
"We just want to make sure every vote is counted and every voice is heard," he said. "The process is working as it should, and we're thankful for that."
The process was also slow. Election workers were sworn in, promising they would not tamper with any ballots, and they were warned to be vigilant and organized every step of the way.
"The nightmare scenario is someone having some unscanned ballots and scanned ballots in front of them at the same time and then forgetting which is which," Cheryl Jones, an administrator in Fairfax's elections office, told the poll workers. "It's important to be organized."
After some procedural glitches, the recount process started about 11 a.m. Fairfax's two high-speed scanners whipped through the ballots in batches of 100 at a time. The workers from Prince William used 16 hand-fed scanners, making the process there much slower.
At just before 5 p.m., officials from both jurisdictions made initial plans to push past the allotted time to end to come up with a final result.
But a request to extend the recount to 6:30 p.m. was denied by Judge Bruce D. White, chief judge in Fairfax.
The poll workers are scheduled to meet again at 9 a.m. Thursday to finish the recount.