Testing, Testing...

Local Officials Get Machines Recount-Ready

Posted: December 13, 2013

James Showalter (right) and Robert Showalter, voting machine technicians with Valley Microcomputers, program and test machines Thursday as the Rockingham County Electoral Board prepares for the upcoming recount in the attorney general race. (Photos by Nikki Fox / DN-R)
Test ballots are used to program and check machines Thursday as officials prepare for next week’s recount of the November vote for attorney general.
Rockingham County Registrar Lisa Gooden fills out sample ballots for testing voting machines Thursday as officials prepare for the upcoming recount in the attorney general election. The recount will begin Tuesday locally, while in Fairfax County, Chesapeake and Alexandria, it starts Monday.
HARRISONBURG — It was hardly the most exciting work, but what went on in the Rockingham County Administration Center and Harrisonburg Municipal Building on Thursday was a vital piece to Virginia political history.

Machine testing for next week’s attorney general recount took place in the city and Rockingham County on Thursday, requiring officials to fill out sample ballots and feed them through scanners to ensure that votes are tallied correctly.

State Sen. Mark Herring, D-Loudoun, defeated state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, by 165 votes out of 2.2 million cast in the Nov. 5 election. Obenshain, as allowed by state law when the margin of defeat is less than 1 percent, called for a recount three weeks later.

A court order from a three-judge panel overseeing the recount on Tuesday specified how the testing process should be handled. It’s not much different than what election officials do before every election, but it’s received much more interest given the historically close race.

The panel of judges asked that each machine have 24 test ballots, filled out in different ways, run through it. The paper tape printed after a machine is tested should have read as five votes for Herring, four for Obenshain, three write-ins for “John Doe” and then six variations of two overvotes or undervotes.

An overvote occurs when a voter chooses both Herring and Obenshain, while undervotes are typical of a ballot where no candidate is selected for a certain office. In the latter instance, a voter also could have mistakenly filled out his or her ballot — circling a name instead of filling out the bubble, for instance. In that case, a machine would not count it. Because it clearly indicates the voter’s preference, however, it would pass muster upon review by an election official and be counted. Undervotes will be set aside for manual counting.

The county programmed 30 memory cards (one for every precinct) for the recount. Tucker Obenshain, the senator’s daughter, observed the testing process for the Republicans, while Herring’s campaign did not have anyone present.

Harrisonburg, which has seven precincts, hosted Suzanne Obenshain, the Republican candidate’s wife, as the lone observer of the testing, said Sandra Price-Stroble, chairwoman of the city electoral board.

The recount will begin Tuesday locally, while in Fairfax County, Chesapeake and Alexandria, it starts Monday.

The three-judge panel will meet Wednesday to begin hearing challenges of any ballots by the candidates. The recount can last no later than 5 p.m. that day, except for Fairfax, Chesapeake and Alexandria, which have until 11:59 p.m. The panel is then expected to declare a winner either Thursday or Friday of next week.

Contest Ahead?

Most of the attention in the recount will likely be on Fairfax, where Obenshain’s legal team thinks the electoral board there mishandled certain ballots by delivering them to its circuit court clerk after a Nov. 13 deadline.

Fairfax officials have said the ballots were properly stored.

In a conference call Wednesday, Marc Elias, an attorney representing Herring, said Obenshain’s focus on those Fairfax ballots is “telling” because they “don’t go to a recount.”

That means Obenshain might be looking ahead at contesting the election in the Republican-led General Assembly, Elias said. The deadline to contest it is Dec. 23.

“If you want to read the early tea leaves,” Elias said, “look at what the lawyers are saying.”

Obenshain’s counsel, William H. Hurd, said in a phone interview that it’s “really premature to comment on that hypothetical” of contesting the election to the legislature.

But he’s hopeful that Obenshain gains ground, if not takes over, in the recount because election law has changed since 2005, when the last statewide recount was held and only a handful of precincts statewide reran ballots. The law now says that all scanned ballots must be rerun, which is why localities around Virginia are doing just what Harrisonburg and Rockingham County officials did Thursday.

“Everything’s secured and ready to go,” Price-Stroble said.

Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or pknight@dnronline.com

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