Virginia AG Race: Election Geeks Creating A New Environment for Close Races?


[Image courtesy of theprepperjournal]

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you are probably already familiar with the extraordinary developments over the weekend in Virginia, where the canvassing process has narrowed the margin between Republican Mark Obenshain and Democrat Mark Herring to 17 votes out of 2.2 million cast.

The Washington Post ‘s Ben Pershing has more:

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.

What’s been fascinating to me is how this entire process has taken place under the gaze of hyper-aware election geeks who have in some cases driven the narrative forward – mostly on Twitter. In particular, two key individuals stick out:

  • + Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report (@Redistrict), who was among the first to identify anomalies with absentee ballots in Fairfax County – specifically, low totals for such ballots in the 8th Congressional District, which ultimately led to the discovery of a malfunctioning machine in one Seven Corners-area polling station (leading to the Twitter hashtag #7CornersSurprise); and
  • + Brian Schoeneman, a GOP appointee to the Fairfax County Election Board (@BrianSchoeneman) who has, from the beginning, been engaging Wasserman and others on Twitter in a spirit of transparency and accountability that is really impressive.

Thanks to the tone set by these two, the debate has (at least so far) managed to avoid the partisan nonsense that usually accompanies close races like these. More impressively, the entire discussion has taken place using data provided by the State Board of Elections, Fairfax County and other localities – with election geeks of all kinds using that data to identify potential problems and make educated guesses about the impact of correcting those problems.

I’m not going to pretend that this race isn’t taking its toll, especially on the election office (Schoeneman’s last Tweet last night with the most recent press statement ended with “Too exhausted for more explanation, see you tomorrow”) but I think we could look back on the last week or so and say it might have represented a high-water mark in evidence-based interactions about election results.

Either way, this race is almost certain to go to a recount; when it does, the record will already be jam-packed with evidence of what happened on and after Election Day.

On behalf of election geeks everywhere, I raise my coffee cup to Virginia. If nothing else, it’s one hell of a story.

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