17 Votes Separate Candidates In Virginia Attorney General’s Race
The margin in the Virginia Attorney General's race is, quite literally, razor thin.
The gap between Mark Obenshain (R) and Mark Herring (D) in the fight to be Virginia’s next Attorney General could not be any closer:
As the dust settled on election night, a few things seemed clear about the race for Virginia attorney general: It was too close to call, the numbers would change during a statewide canvass and the loser would probably ask for a recount.
What was then a standard-issue tight contest between state Sens. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) and Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun) has turned into something more dramatic and uncertain. A frenetic weekend search for the right numbers — much of it taking place at the Fairfax County Government Center — produced thousands of uncounted votes and an even closer race.
As of Sunday night, Obenshain led by 17 votes out of more than 2.2 million cast, according to the State Board of Elections Web site.
At times Friday, Obenshain led by more than 1,200 votes, but the totals have changed regularly since Tuesday. Some of the shift was due to a handful of mistakes attributed to human or machine error. Some of it was the result of the standard canvassing process that takes place after every election. Both types of adjustment are typical, and no one suspects wrongdoing. But in a typical year, these additions and subtractions don’t affect the outcome.
This year is different. The contest for attorney general is so close that the normal process of fixing errors and counting provisional ballots has caused the results tally to narrow dramatically in an already close race.
And the results are likely to continue shifting, with provisional ballots unreported in one large locality, Fairfax County, and possibly incomplete in another, Richmond. No matter what, the race — with a margin smaller than 0.001 percent of the vote — is almost certainly headed for a recount that won’t be decided before December.
With the margin this close, it’s obvious that Tuesday saw a significant degree of ticket splitting in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The margin of victory in the McAuliffe-Cuccinelli, now roughly about 2.5%, is closer than the margin in the Lt. Governor’s race between State Senator Ralph Northam and E.W. Jackson Jr, which presently stands at just under 11%. And, then, we’ve got the Attorney General’s race. Quite obviously, Tuesday saw a lot of of Cuccinelli and Sarvis voters who voted for Northam over Jackson in the Lt. Governor’s race and, apparently, a lot of Sarvis voters who voted for Obsenshain who voted for Obsenshain, not to mention McAuliffe voters who did the same. This isn’t entirely unusual in Virginia, but it’s rather unique to see the races for these three seats vary this much.
Getting back to the vote count, the entire state faces a deadline on Tuesday when all provisional and other ballots must be counted and reported to the State Board of Elections, so in some sense we will get some sense of finality by the close of business tomorrow. Many observers who are following the process closely expect that, by the point, Democratic candidate Mark Herring will end up with a very narrow lead. That estimate, which I tend to agree with, is simply dictated by the fact that the two areas where most of the revised numbers are coming from, Fairax and Richmond, are likely to be very helpful to him. In the end, it’s not likely to matter because the result will be so close that whichever candidate happens to end up on the losing side of this race is going to be asking for a recount. Fortunately, Virginia’s recount procedure is fairly easy to understand, although it’s going to take some time for a final resolution to be determined:
First, there is no such thing as an automatic recount. Under Virginia law, a loser in a tight race may request a recount within 10 days after the state Board of Elections certifies the results. That won’t happen until Nov. 25 — after each county and city canvasses and certifies its own results.
For a recount to occur, the margin of victory must be less than one percentage point of the total vote. The candidate must pay for the recount unless the margin is less than 0.5 percent. In the attorney general’s race, the margin is way less than that, so if the results hold after certification, the state would pay for the recount.
A three judge panel of the Richmond Circuit Court oversees the efforts and irons out the specifics, and a final recount could take weeks.
Indeed, when this occurred eight years ago in the Attorney General’s race between Bob McDonnell and Creigh Deeds, the final winner was not declared until very late in December. That recount resulted in Bob McDonnell winning by a 360 vote margin. By all accounts, it seems fairly clear that the final result here will be much, much closer.
The political consequences of the recount will be significant, though. If Herring wins, then the Democrats will hold all the statewide offices in the state for the first time since Richard Nixon was President. More importantly, the GOP will be left without an apparent heir apparent for the Governor’s race in 2017, leaving opening the possibility that outgoing Lt. Governor Bill Bolling will start building the political support necessary for a comeback. If Obenshain wins, then he’ll likely become the GOP’s heir apparent which, given the fact that he has a record of social conservatism not very different from Ken Cuccinelli’s, may not be the best thing for the RPV going forward. So, there are some pretty huge political stakes going into the next six weeks and the inevitable coming recount.
In the meantime, there are several top-notch political pundits following the vote count very closely over on Twitter, if you’re so inclined, you can follow their take on what’s going on via this Twitter List.
Update: This isn’t reflected on the SBOE website, probably because today is a holiday for the State Government as well as Federal Government, but based on the reports on the above-linked Twitter list it now appears that Democrat Mark Herring is ahead by about 100-120 votes in the vote count based on the provisional ballots that have been accepted. Counting of those ballots is continuing, though, and will continue tomorrow. Given that the majority of the outstanding provisional ballots come from Fairfax County and the City of Richmond, both areas where Democrats as a whole did well this year, it seems likely they will end up adding to Herring’s lead even if only marginally. However the final count turns out, have no doubt that there will be a recount here.