- - Sunday, December 15, 2013

Stealing elections is an old game politicians play. Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th president, got to the U.S. Senate in 1948 by “winning” the closest race in Texas history by a margin of 87 votes out of more than a million cast. An election judge in tiny Alice, Texas, said he counted more than 200 names on the voting roll for Box 13 that were written in alphabetic succession in the same hand, same color of ink. When a federal court subpoenaed Box 13, it was discovered to be “lost.” LBJ took his seat in the Senate. Voting machines were supposed to put an end to such election-night chicanery, but Earl Long, the colorful governor of Louisiana, where fraud is the national sport, boasted that “I can make a voting machine play ‘Home on the Range’ all night long.”

Evidence of such fraud repeats itself on Monday in Virginia when election officials begin the thankless task of recounting the more than 2.2 million ballots cast in the Nov. 5 state attorney general’s race, where just 165 votes separate the two candidates.

The fishiest results were posted in Fairfax County, where enough provisional ballots conveniently appeared to give state Sen. Mark R. Herring, the Democrat, an edge over state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain of Harrisonburg, the Republican. “They kept finding ballots,” a highly placed Republican source says. Mr. Herring was finally declared the winner by .007 of 1 percent of the vote in the final tally, making it the closest statewide race in Virginia history.

Republicans nearly always get the sticky end of the wicket. In 2008, Al Franken, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota, trailed his Republican opponent by 215 votes out of 2.9 million cast. After working a protracted recount and a legal battle over disputed absentee ballots and ballots said to be counted twice, he was abruptly declared the “winner” by 312 votes. A box of Democratic ballots helpfully turned up in the trunk of a car.

The Fairfax results closely resemble the 2002 gubernatorial election in the state of Washington, where Christine Gregoire, the Democratic candidate, lost the first recount, then the second. On the third recount, King County Democrats found enough ballots to make up enough difference to defeat Dino Rossi, the Republican candidate.

Mr. Obenshain’s campaign says that used ballots and blank ballots were “misplaced” in Fairfax and turned in to the circuit court clerk after the deadline. Fairfax officials don’t dispute this account, but they insist the misplaced ballots had been kept under lock and key. A related dispute centered on whether those ballots were turned in on Nov. 18 or Nov. 20. “This two-day gap is especially troubling,” wrote Mr. Obenshain’s attorney, William H. Hurd, a former state solicitor general, in a letter Wednesday to Fairfax officials, “since it involves not only ballots that were presumably cast legitimately on Election Day, but also unused ballots that could, in the wrong hands, provide a means of tampering.”

In Fairfax County, a Democratic stronghold, those who cast provisional ballots had three additional days to get them counted — a “courtesy” not extended in other counties, raising equal-protection concerns.

The recount is to be completed and certified by the end of the week, but a final result is likely to be further delayed. The General Assembly has the power to decide disputed elections or even to call a new one if an appeal is filed by Dec. 23. The man who will succeed Ken Cuccinelli as attorney general shouldn’t get the job based on his skills of prestidigitation. The lore of election-stealing is already sufficient unto the day.

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