[Image courtesy of Friends of Bryce Reeves]
It seems that every election cycle has one race that ends up getting the lion's share of media attention; in 2011, it appears to be the contest in the 17th State Senate District of Virginia, where challenger Bryce Reeves holds a razor-thin lead over incumbent Edd Houck. If Reeves' lead holds, it will result in a 20-20 partisan split in the Virginia Senate which will allow Republicans to control the body with the tie-breaking vote of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.
Stories like this make for great political drama, but they're also terrific opportunities to dig into the details of election administration that inevitably come into play in a close race such as this one.
The District: Senate District 17 is part of the Commonwealth's new redistricting plan following the 2010 Census. As you can see from the map, It stretches from Fredericksburg in the east to Culpepr in the north down to the Charlottesville city line in the southwest. It includes all or part of six jurisdictions: Albemarle County, Culpepr County, Louisa County, Orange County, Spotsylvania County and the independent city of Fredericksburg. Fittingly, given that the 17th is the epicenter of Virginia politics right now, the 17th is also home to Mineral, epicenter of the 2011 Mid-Atlantic earthquake.
The margin: According to the Virginia State Board of Elections, 45,073 District 17 voters cast their ballots on Election Day. While initial tallies on Election Night showed Reeves winning by 86 votes, that margin grew to 226 as jurisdictions began to canvass their results. The main reason for the swing was one Spotsylvania County precinct that had been recorded as going for Houck but actually went to Reeves - not at all unusual in the canvassing process.
The Remaining Ballots: According to reports, there are still 150 provisional ballots to be counted in the District 17 race. Virginia is one of the states that requires that provisional ballots be cast in the proper precinct in order to count; therefore, any otherwise eligible voter who went to the wrong precinct (not at all unusual in the wake of redistricting) and cast a provisional ballot may be at risk of having that ballot not count.
The Machines: Virginia does not have a uniform voting system, and thus votes in the 17th were cast on a variety of systems by different vendors on both paper ballots and electronically. UPDATE: Here's a link to a statewide voting machine usage table from the State Board of Elections ...left it out of the original post!
The Recount? Virginia law does not provide for automatic recounts; however, candidates may request a recount if the margin is 1% or less. If the margin is 0.5% or less, the cost of the recount is borne by the local jurisdictions in which the recount takes place - or if candidate seeking the recount wins. Recounts take place after the results are certified, and are conducted upon petition to - and under the supervision of - the state courts. The State Board of Elections has a brief but thorough summary of the procedure here. [Fun with math - if the current margin holds, 226 votes out of 45,073 yields a margin of 0.5014% .... which rounds to 0.5% but is still over. It'll be interesting to see if the affected cities/counties are willing to bear the cost on the basis of rounding significant digits down. I'm still trying to figure out how provisional ballots would figure into this equation.]
Virginia has had experience with recounts before - most recently the 2005 Attorney General race. That race led to some changes in how the Commonwealth handles recounts which will be in play should Houck request a recount.
I don't know if the drama here will reach the levels it did in Washington in 2004 or Minnesota in 2008 (and 2010) but the number of moving parts (and the political stakes involved) should make any Reeves-Houck recount interesting to watch.