RICHMOND — Nearly a week after Election Day, Democrats and Republicans were closely monitoring three races that could determine control of Virginia's House of Delegates.
The parties were especially focused on the House seat being vacated by retiring Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). Republican Robert Thomas is ahead of Joshua Cole by 86 votes.
Democrats claim 55 absentee ballots mailed in that race by active-duty military voters went uncounted because they were left in the Stafford County registrar's mailbox on Election Day — an account the registrar disputes.
"It's disgraceful that the registrar and two members of the Stafford County Electoral Board refuse to count military votes," Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said in a statement.
Greg Riddlemoser, general registrar of Stafford County, said all ballots that arrived on time were counted. He said Democrats appeared to be referring to 55 absentee ballots that arrived Wednesday, missing the 7 p.m. Tuesday deadline. He also said the 55 ballots were mailed in by absentee voters of all stripes, not specifically by those in the military.
"I believe the apparent controversy is a result of misunderstanding what my office and what the Stafford County Electoral Board can lawfully do," Riddlemoser said in a statement. "Under Virginia law . . . we can only count those absentee ballots that were returned to the registrar's office by 7 p.m. on the day of the election — the same time the other polls close."
He also said it is not unusual for ballots to trickle in after Election Day.
"With every election, my office typically continues to receive late absentee ballots for weeks — and sometimes even months — after an election has come and gone," he said. "We cannot count these ballots without an order of a court . . . and instead store them, (unopened) in a secure manner in the custody of the Stafford County Clerk of Court."
On Nov. 7, Democrats made huge gains in the House as they also swept statewide offices for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Before the election, Republicans enjoyed a 66-to-34 majority in Richmond's lower chamber. Now Democrats are within striking distance of taking control. They need one more victory to force a power-sharing agreement with Republicans and two more to take the reins of the chamber for the first time since 2000.
Democrats have secured victories in 49 out of 100 seats, with Republicans holding narrow leads in the Thomas-Cole contest and two others.
After elections officials examined provisional ballots cast in District 40 on Monday, Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax) saw his 115-vote lead over Democrat Donte Tanner shrink to 106 votes. In District 94, Del. David E. Yancey (R-Newport News) had his 13-vote lead over Democrat Shelly Simonds dwindle to 10.
Voters who cast provisional ballots because they arrived at the polls without identification had until noon Monday to provide ID. Aside from the 55 absentee ballots in dispute, the race for Howell's seat has 50 provisional ballots, which elections officials plan to count Tuesday.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a lawsuit in Stafford Monday on behalf of two voters who cast provisional ballots, claiming the county's electoral board provided "conflicting and misleading instructions" that could prevent their votes from being counted.
Recounts cannot commence until election results are certified shortly before Thanksgiving.