The difference between a vote cast and a vote counted was nowhere clearer than in the Virginia race for attorney general. A week after Election Day, Democrat state Senator Mark Herring proved victorious over Republican state Senator Mark Obenshain by a margin of 164 votes out of over 2.2 million cast, according to the Virginia State Board of Elections unofficial online tally. Localities had until 11:59 p.m. Tuesday to report numbers to the state. … Episodes occurred in Fairfax and Richmond counties, two of the most populous in the state. Among other election observers, Michael McDonald, an Associate Professor of government and politics at George Mason University, found that absentee turnout from Fairfax didn’t match his prediction. While Brian W. Schoeneman, a Republican member of the Fairfax Electoral Board, protested through Twitter that all had been counted, upon further review, state election officials found that a tabulation machine had broken and the votes on a replacement machine weren’t counted. Around 3,000 votes were then reviewed, and a large majority went to Herring, who at that point was losing in the unofficial tally. … In Richmond, state officials failed to enter more than 200 votes, throwing the aforementioned 17-vote lead for Obenshain to the razor-slim 117-vote margin for Herring. In this case, officials realized their mistake well before it hit social media.
These errors have an easier chance of being reported and caught by outside observers in Virginia, due to the state’s “unusually transparent” electoral process, according to McDonald, because the state releases not only overall numbers, but also breakdowns in how a vote is cast (including absentee) and in what precinct. That openness, combined with the high level of interest due to the closeness of the campaign, can lead to a messy, but effective evaluation.
Charles Judd, chairman of the Virginia State Board of Elections, praised the localities for doing a “very good job” while admitting “it’s a little unusual—the number of human errors that can occur with data entry.” Judd says that the election “appears to be the closest that anyone can remember.” In 2003, Gov. Bob McDonnell won the attorney general’s race over Democrat Creigh Deeds by 360 votes.
Judd told TIME that 80 to 85 percent of Virginia’s precincts use electronic touch screens and the rest paper scanners. Judd would prefer to replace the current system with one that would take a digital picture of the paper-scanned ballot, which would be helpful during recounts. He says it “could eliminate that step where a lot of human error occurs” as the digital picture could be exported to the database automatically.
Judd also has some choice words for the touch screens, which he says are 18 years old and aren’t made anymore. “We’re limping along with equipment that’s old and failing us some,” says Judd. “An upgrade is necessary.”