As the dust settled on election night, a few things seemed clear about the race for Virginia attorney general: It was too close to call, the numbers would change during a statewide canvass and the loser would probably ask for a recount. What was then a standard-issue tight contest between state Sens. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) and Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun) has turned into something more dramatic and uncertain. A frenetic weekend search for the right numbers — much of it taking place at the Fairfax County Government Center — produced thousands of uncounted votes and an even closer race. As of Sunday night, Obenshain led by 17 votes out of more than 2.2 million cast, according to the State Board of Elections Web site. At times Friday, Obenshain led by more than 1,200 votes, but the totals have changed regularly since Tuesday. Some of the shift was due to a handful of mistakes attributed to human or machine error. Some of it was the result of the standard canvassing process that takes place after every election. Both types of adjustment are typical, and no one suspects wrongdoing. But in a typical year, these additions and subtractions don’t affect the outcome.
This year is different. The contest for attorney general is so close that the normal process of fixing errors and counting provisional ballots has caused the results tally to narrow dramatically in an already close race.
And the results are likely to continue shifting, with provisional ballots unreported in one large locality, Fairfax County, and possibly incomplete in another, Richmond. No matter what, the race — with a margin smaller than 0.001 percent of the vote — is almost certainly headed for a recount that won’t be decided before December.
Michael McDonald, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University and an expert on voting, said Virginia was unusually transparent compared with most states when it comes to reporting election results online in real time.