11/07/13: A post-election scramble – and wait

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

TUESDAY’S election isn’t quite over. For the second time in three election cycles, the contest for attorney general will likely be decided by a recount.

Just hundreds of votes — out of nearly 2.2 million cast — separate the two state senators, Democrat Mark Herring and Republican Mark Obenshain. Eight years ago, just 323 votes separated Creigh Deeds and Bob McDonnell.

Virginia has no provision for an automatic recount. A candidate who is the apparent loser can ask for a recount if the difference between the winner and loser is not more than 1 percent of the total votes cast for the two.

A request for a recount must come within 10 days after the election results are certified by the State Board of Elections. According to the SBE, the results will be certified Monday, Nov. 25, making the 10-day window for filing the petition for a recount Nov. 26 through Dec. 5.

The recount procedure is provided for in §24.2-802 of the Virginia code. It’s not really a full recount, though: For direct recording electronic voting machines, like those used in Norfolk, officials open up the envelopes containing the printouts and read the results from them. If the ballots were cast using optical scan machines, the ballots are to be rerun through the tabulators. If paper ballots were used, they are to be recounted by hand.

If history is any guide, though, that may not happen. In 2005, paper ballots were recounted, but optical scan ballots were not rerun. For those machines, The Washington Post reported that officials “merely double-checked the math by comparing totals on computerized ballot tapes and poll books recording how many people voted.”

Even so, it took more than six weeks — until Dec. 21 — for McDonnell to be certified as the winner in the attorney general’s race. I suspect that will be the minimum this time around. Unlike 2005, this will affect the timing of at least one special election — and perhaps two.

Political considerations will likely be the deciding factor. The current state Senate is evenly divided, with 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans. The governor will set the date of the special elections.

We already know there will be a special election in the 6th Senate District, due to the election of Ralph Northam as lieutenant governor. Candidates from both parties — five or six Republicans and three Democrats — have already started those campaigns.

If Tuesday’s AG contest had been decided, the game plan for the two special elections was fairly simple: An Obenshain win coupled with a Northam win would have left the Senate still evenly divided, 19-19, and there would be little incentive to delay the special elections.

A Herring win would have put the Democrats down two seats — 20-18. There would be little incentive to rush the special elections. I’ve heard dates as late as March 2014, after the upcoming General Assembly session ends.

With the results unknown in the attorney general contest, the decision is not as simple.

History would argue for a quick special election in the 6th: In 2005, when then-Sen. Bill Bolling was elected lieutenant governor, the special election for the 4th Senate District was held Jan. 3, 2006.

But leaving the seat vacant would give Republicans a 20-19 edge, perhaps tempting enough for McDonnell to delay the election as long as possible. On the other hand, holding the election soon might allow the Republicans to devote all of their resources and claim the 21st seat they have long coveted.

Political considerations aside, the best thing for the voters in the 6th — including me — is that we have representation in the Senate. So I would hope that the governor sets the special election date as soon as possible.

Of course, I had hoped the contest for AG had not been close, either. For those who stayed at home Tuesday — turnout was about 37 percent — think of what your vote could have meant.