RICHMOND, Va. — Democrat Mark Herring’s 165-vote win over Republican Mark Obenshain in the close race for attorney general is headed to a recount Dec. 17 and 18, with Fairfax County getting a one-day head start.
Richmond Circuit Judge Beverly W. Snukals scheduled the recount at a hearing Wednesday in which attorneys for both candidates debated the ground rules for what is expected to be the state’s most extensive recount ever in the closest statewide race in modern Virginia political history. Snukals also scheduled a tentative Dec. 19 date for a recount court to rule on disputed votes in the recount.
Snukals agreed to allow Fairfax County to begin its recount Dec. 16, with the remaining localities joining in the following two days. Fairfax County is the state’s most populous and uses a variety of voting machines that could extend its recount beyond two days.
Donald Palmer, secretary of the State Board of Elections, attended the nearly four-hour hearing to assist Snukals and attorneys for Obenshain and Herring navigate election law and various schedules to ensure local elections officials can conduct the recount.
Asked outside court whether he was confident in an accurate recount, Palmer said, “Absolutely.”
Most of the hearing focused on the ground rules of a recount. Attorneys argued over the role of observers who will be stationed at the 127 jurisdictions involved in the recount, the security of sealed voting machines, access to polling books, the testing of election machines, and the basis upon which a ballot can be challenged.
Snukals did not immediately rule on most of the arguments. A meeting of the full recount court, which includes judges from circuit court benches in Norfolk and western Virginia, is scheduled for Monday to act on many of the issues raised Wednesday.
Kevin Hamilton, an attorney representing Herring, and Obenshain attorney William Hurd found little agreement on the nuts and bolts of a recount, even disagreeing on the preferred date.
Hurd, for instance, pushed for observers from either campaign to “suggest” a challenge of a ballot to election workers, who will represent both parties.
Hamilton objected, contending that the process should be kept nonpartisan and free from meddling by observers.
Once the recount is completed, the three-judge panel will meet to hear arguments over challenged ballots and rule on them.
The 2005 race for attorney general had been the closest statewide race in Virginia history, with 300 votes separating Republican Bob McDonnell and Democrat Creigh Deeds. A recount actually added several dozen votes to McDonnell’s lead.
Deeds, a state senator, later successfully submitted legislation to expand the number of ballots that are tallied in a recount.
Herring, a state senator from northern Virginia, has already declared himself the state’s next attorney general, and the State Board of Elections has certified his 165-vote edge over Obenshain.
While Virginia does not have an automatic recount, a candidate can seek one at taxpayer expense if the victor’s margin is less than one-half of 1 percent. Herring’s margin represents a 0.007 percent edge over Obenshain. Obenshain, a state senator from Harrisonburg, petitioned for the recount Nov. 27.
The recount will include an array of ballots cast — touch-screen, electronic recording machines and optical scanners. No locality uses punch-card ballots, whose hanging chads became part of the national political vocabulary during the 2000 presidential recount in Florida.
So-called under-votes are expected to be closed examined. Those are ballots in which a voter did not vote for a full slate of candidates. They will be looked at closely in a recount to determine whether that was intentional or an error in casting a vote.
Absentee and provisional ballots will be counted by hand.
The current attorney general, Republican Ken Cuccinelli, unsuccessfully ran for governor.
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