- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 10, 2013

The race for attorney general in Virginia remains undecided nearly a week after Election Day, and as local elections officials neared the conclusion of an investigation into absentee ballots, the razor-thin lead of Republican Mark D. Obenshain narrowed.

Numbers from the Virginia State Board of Elections on Sunday showed Mr. Obenshain leading his Democratic opponent, Mark R. Herring by 55 votes statewide at 1,103,436 to 1,103,381. But analysts said that number is likely to change as election officials in Fairfax County count provisional ballots before the Tuesday certification deadline.

Fairfax County Electoral Board Secretary Brian W. Schoeneman said the board had finished counting roughly 3,200 previously uncounted absentee ballots for the county and had submitted them to the elections board.

Mr. Schoeneman said 493 provisional ballots were not included in the weekend submission to the state board but would be counted Tuesday. Mr. Herring took 61 percent of the vote in Fairfax County compared to 39 percent for Mr. Obenshain.

The electoral board began its investigation Friday after a meeting to discuss errors in absentee ballot returns in the 8th Congressional District, located in Fairfax County. The errors were linked to two “optical scan machine tape records, one that had been included in the results, and one that had not been included in the results,” the board stated.

A weekend canvass of the votes followed, during which staff and observers checked for any mistakes in ballots and found the 3,200 uncounted votes.

The board has until midnight Tuesday to certify the results, after which they are sent to the Virginia State Board of Elections for its certification. The state board certifies results on Nov. 25, and a losing candidate must ask for a recount with 10 days of the state certification.

The lead has shifted back and forth in the days since the election, as local elections officials update their totals with the state.

Recounts are not automatic in Virginia but can be requested in races decided by a margin of a half percent or less.

Last week, Mr. Obenshain told supporters that despite the close race, he was “confident that we will prevail.”

Mr. Herring’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

While the recount has captured the political spotlight, Michael P. McDonald, associate professor at George Mason University’s Department of Public and International Affairs, said some reporting errors are to be expected and that the state has time to get the results right.

“Virginia is very transparent in the way it reports election results,” Mr. McDonald said. “We have on Election Night election officials across the commonwealth reporting precincts to the State Board of Elections. They’re posting on the state website and you can actually see at a very fine level what’s going on with the election. Whenever you have a large data entry effort like you have with all these election officials, there are going to be some errors.”

Often the errors are inconsequential, or they cancel one another out in a race in which there is a clear winner, Mr. McDonald explained. But in the case of a tight race, like the one for attorney general, that’s when every vote really does count.

“I think we’re looking at margin of victory of less than 100 votes for either candidate,” Mr. McDonald said. “The good news is there’s no rush here, there’s plenty of time left to get the right election outcome called. It may be at the end of the day it is so close and razor-thin, it really was a coin toss who won the election.”