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Virginia’s Attorney General Recount Gets Head Start in Fairfax County

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Neither Republican Mark Obenshain (left) or Democrat Mark Herring are conceding the attorney general's race in Virginia. (Credit: Getty Images)

Neither Republican Mark Obenshain (left) or Democrat Mark Herring are conceding the attorney general’s race in Virginia. (Credit: Getty Images)

Update: Dec. 16, 2013 at 7:30 p.m.
Original: Dec. 16, 2013 at 7:43 a.m.

RICHMOND, Va. — Democrat Mark Herring padded his razor-thin lead with help from the state’s largest jurisdiction as a recount in the race for attorney general began Monday.

The rest of the state joins in the recount on Tuesday, but Fairfax County and the cities of Alexandria and Chesapeake got a jump start Monday because of the large number of votes or machines that can’t isolate results for Herring or Republican Mark Obenshain. The certified results from the state before the recount gave Herring has a 165-vote edge over his fellow state senator.

By 5 p.m. Monday, Fairfax County had found an additional 183 votes for Herring and 92 for Obenshain, adding 91 votes to Herring’s lead. The change reflects results from 67 of the county’s 242 precincts.

Recount officers will review about 300,000 paper optical scan ballots cast in Fairfax County. Ballots that are spit out by counting machines will be subject to hand counting.

Teams of recount officers began the re-tabulation under the watchful eye of nearly 100 observers recruited by the two parties. Obenshain said more than 500 volunteers will be spread out at recount posts across the state. Herring’s campaign has fielded about half that number.

If recount officers, working in teams of two with a Republican and a Democrat, can’t agree on a voter’s intent, the ballot will be set aside for review by the State Board of Elections. A three-judge recount court will have the final say on deciphering disputed ballots. It is scheduled to rule on challenged ballots on Thursday and is expected to meet again Friday before a final tally is announced.

The recount is focusing primarily on “undervotes,” those ballots where the optical scanners didn’t record a vote for either Herring or Obenshain. There are roughly 5,000 undervotes in Fairfax County.

The recount is the first time that human eyes look at the ballots to see if a voter truly left it blank or if the scanner simply didn’t pick up the mark, said Fairfax County recount coordinator Brian Schoeneman.

At an early evening briefing Monday, Schoeneman said none of the ballots reviewed thus far have been contested or challenged.

The vast majority of the changes, Schoeneman said, are a result of human review of those votes that the counting machines rejected as overvotes or undervotes. For instance, if a voter made a check mark by one candidate’s name rather than filling in the oval, the machine might not count the vote, but the voter’s intent would be obvious to human observers.

Fairfax County represents by far the largest trove of optical scan ballots in the state. The Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit group, estimated that 712,000 optical scan ballots will be reviewed statewide. Fairfax County officials say 300,000 of those ballots are within its borders. Many other counties rely much more heavily on electronic touch-screen machines that do not leave a paper trail where individual ballots can be recounted.

Fairfax County Republican Committee Chairman Jay McConville did a stint as a recount observer Monday morning. None of the ballots that were reviewed sparked any kind of dispute or difference of opinion, he said.

Fairfax County, the state’s largest jurisdiction, is counting ballots under extra scrutiny. Some Republicans have raised questions about whether the Democratic stronghold was too lax in allowing ballots to be counted.

They could be building a case for a contested election, which would send the race to the General Assembly to settle. A losing candidate can press that rare option if he documents voting irregularities.

“Everybody is paying attention to what we do in Fairfax,” Schoeneman told election officials and recount officers as they received instructions on the process at the county courthouse.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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