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Va. attorney general vote recount, some by hand, to get started Dec. 16

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A recount of the votes in the Virginia attorney general's race will begin Dec. 16, but a number of jurisdictions, including Alexandria, are facing hand recounts thanks to voting machines considered outdated by the state's electoral board.

Only 165 votes of more than 2.2 million cast separate Democrat Mark R. Herring and Republican Mark D. Obenshain — a 0.007 percent difference that amounts to the closest finish to a race in Virginia history.

A three-judge recount court in Richmond on Wednesday announced the process would begin Dec. 17 and 18 for a majority of the state's voting districts, though Fairfax County, the state's largest district, was given the go-ahead to begin its recount a day earlier, on Dec. 16.

Donald Palmer, secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections, said officials would prefer the ballots be tabulated by optical scanners. In some cases, though, jurisdictions use machines that can't isolate just one of the races that appeared on the ballot — in this case, the attorney general's race.

Mr. Palmer voiced concern that some voting machines were not able to separate out "overvotes," when a voter marks the ballot in a way that appears to show more than one vote for a particular race, and "undervotes," when a voter did not appear to have made a choice in all the races on the ballot.

The undervotes will be important, as officials will be trying to visually inspect whether any voters signaled their intention to choose a candidate in a way a machine did not register.

"If it cannot be programmed to do that for some reason, they have to be hand counted. Technology and time and the [state] code has passed by older equipment. We would like our equipment to all meet requirements of the code and be up to date."

Tom Parkins, registrar for the Alexandria Electoral Board, bristled at the idea that the city's voting equipment is outdated, instead pointing out that Alexandria's machines are known for their security more than their flexibility.

"Our system is very difficult, if not impossible, to hack into," he said. "Our electoral board decided that was significantly more important than flexibility."

The Alexandria team is likely facing more than 40,000 ballots to be recounted, but Mr. Parkins said that despite the seemingly daunting task, "we do not see this as a very serous problem."

"There are things that slow machinery," Mr. Parkins said "You can only re-scan as quickly as a voting machine will take them. It's not like with a high-speed printer. This is a regular voting machine, where you put a ballot in the scanner and get a message the ballot was counted."

Linda Lindberg, general registrar for the Arlington County Electoral Board, said her jurisdiction uses only electronic ballots at the precinct level, and those can be set to only count votes for a certain race. Ms. Lindberg said Arlington has to hand-count a little more than 2,000 paper ballots that came in via mail or printed out from email ballots sent from overseas.

She said those could be checked in a few hours.

Fairfax County, the state's largest voting jurisdiction, also has machines that can differentiate among races, said Brian W. Schoeneman, secretary of the Fairfax Electoral Board.

"Hand recounts are long and tedious, and when you're talking about having to recount thousands of ballots, it will be tough on those localities with equipment that can't be programmed," Mr. Schoeneman said.

He said Fairfax has about 5,500 undervotes to review, not counting absentee ballots.

While Mr. Palmer admitted that human and machine error are always cause for concern — and for a slowdown of the recount process — Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University, said the important thing is to allow human eyes to review the ballots.

"'The right thing to do is look for voter intent and not let the machines determine," Mr. McDonald said. "Let human beings take a look, see these instances where human beings may have tried to relay their intent but weren't successful for one reason or another."

As for the outcome of the statewide recount, Mr. Parkins could only offer a broad prediction.

"There'll be some minor changes," Mr. Parkins said. "Whether it will be enough to change the outcome is anybody's guess."

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