Remember the 2000 election debacle in Florida? The next year (in a big overreaction) the Virginia General Assembly tightened recount law in the Commonwealth. The legislators who passed this bill essentially turned recounts into a second canvass rather than an examination of ballots.
For those unfamiliar with the process- after votes are counted on election night in the precincts, they are called into the electoral boards, then the ballots are delivered to the electoral board. If you vote on a machine, the tapes that print out are sent in that night, if its on an optical scan ballot the ballots themselves are sent with the result print out from the machine- and if you just vote a paper ballot the ballots are sent in with the results handwritten from the precinct.
Many errors are then found over the next week in what is called the "canvass". The canvass is when the result print outs are reviewed to make sure the precinct added everything correctly and that the electoral board has it all down right. The reason votes flip around in this part of the process is 783 can turn into 873 in a typo on election night and when that is discovered it can "flip" 90 votes.
At no time in the canvass are the actual ballots from precincts ever examined.
So when the General Assembly passed the terrible new recount law, they basically made it a second canvass to review the tapes from machines. As such, very few errors were found in the 2005 recount between Bob McDonnell and Creigh Deeds and the results were barely changing, so Deeds conceded before it was even complete. Because the law did not allow a hand count, judges could not examine the 75,000 undervotes** in that race to see if they had voted.
**- undervotes are defined as ballots that did not have a vote counted for that election. Could be they left it blank, or that the machine didn't catch what they marked.
To his credit, after the 2005 recount disaster Senator Deeds worked to change Virginia's recount law back to something worthwhile and a few years later he was successful. Now the law requires a hand count of ballots that machines don't pick up votes for.
How many ballots are we talking about? Only Fairfax County lays out its election results page to show how many voters voted in each precinct on election day versus absentee requests- so you can compare to see the undervotes in each election. Here's what it shows:
ED= ELECTION DAY, VC= VOTES CAST IN AG RACE
Braddock District- 33,567 ED, 33,016 VC= 551 Undervotes
Hunter Mill District- 36,777 ED, 36,122 VC= 655 Undervotes
Dranesville District- 34,428 ED, 33,729 VC= 699 Undervotes
Lee District- 26,145 ED, 25,654 VC= 491 Undervotes
Mason District- 24,551 ED, 23,721 VC= 830 Undervotes
Mt. Vernon District- 30,645 ED, 30,116 VC= 529 Undervotes
Providence District- 28,654 ED, 28,152 VC= 502 Undervotes
Springfield District- 35,938 ED, 35,338 VC= 600 Undervotes
Sully District- 31,318 ED, 30,816 VC= 502 Undervotess
Total Fairfax County undervotes to be hand examined: 5,359 (not including absentee undervotes)/
Figuring in absentee ballots, Fairfax probably has around 6,500 votes left to hand examine. The vast majority of these are probably legitimate undervotes where voters did not select a candidate. Others will be obvious, such as the voter who cast a provisional ballot in Fairfax that had to be handcounted when it didn't go through the machine. On that ballot, the bubbles were filled in for Terry McAuliffe, Ralph Northam and Mark Sickles- but in the AG's race, both bubbles were colored in. Over the Mark Herring bubble was a big X mark and Mark Obenshain's name was circled on the names. It was clear the voter had filled in Herring's bubble, and corrected it by X'ing it out, and then filled in Obenshain's bubble and circled his name to make their intent clear. The ballot was counted for Obenshain.
Each locality has different systems, but with 1 in 7 voters in Virginia voting in Fairfax, 45,500 would be the approximate number of statewide undervotes to be examined if other counties reported the same rates- which can widely vary by voting system.
With that in mind- if you are calling for Mark Obenshain to concede this election- please stop. Every one of these ballots need to be counted- and the only then can we say who "won" or "lost". The odds favor Mark Herring right now because he has the lead- but his lead is less than 1% of the remaining number of ballots to be hand examined.
If just 8,000 of these ballots turn out to have voted when hand examined- Mark Obenshain would need only about 51% of them to change the outcome of this election. That's how close this election is.
On to the recount and we can finally find out who Virginians really selected to be their next Attorney General.