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Actually, Virginia, This Isn't Really a "Recount"

by: lowkell

Thu Nov 28, 2013 at 08:58:40 AM EST

You've probably noticed that just about every news article on what's about to happen with the Virginia Attorney General's race has referred to a "recount." But after talking to Ben "Not Larry Sabato" Tribbett last night, I'm convinced that this is at least somewhat misleading. In fact, as Ben explained, potentially many thousands (he estimates 25,000-50,000) of "undervotes" (e.g., in which a vote was not recorded, for whatever reason, for Attorney General) - plus potentially thousands more "overvotes" (e.g., in which a voter appeared to have voted for both candidates in the AG race) - have not yet been counted the FIRST time. So...instead of being a pure "recount," the following few weeks will actually see the FIRST count of many ballots in Virginia, namely those that couldn't be read the first time (for a variety of reasons) by optical scan machines (note that VPAP estimates "712,000 of those ballots were cast statewide this year.").

For more on procedures for optical scan machines, which are the main issue here with regard to possible "undervotes" and "overvotes," see the Code of Virginia. Here's the key part:

For optical scan tabulators, the recount officials shall rerun all the ballots through a tabulator programmed to count only the votes for the office or issue in question in the recount and to set aside all ballots containing write-in votes, overvotes, and undervotes. The ballots that are set aside, any ballots not accepted by the tabulator, and any ballots for which a tabulator could not be programmed to meet the programming requirements of this subdivision, shall be hand counted...
Another question Ben and I discussed was whether the optical scan machines did what they're supposed to do in the first place, which would be to reject any "votes" not clearly marked, so that they could have been either an "overvote" or an "undervote." On the "overvote," an example would be someone filling in the bubble for Herring, then realizing they meant to vote for Obenshain, so they crossed out the Herring bubble and filled in the Obenshain bubble, even circling it to make clear that they mean to vote for Obenshain. The machine should have rejected that as an "overvote" - a vote for both Herring and Obenshain - since it's not "smart" enough to determine what's going on in that case. That will take a human being, and that has not happened yet - and won't until the inaptly-named "recount" takes place.  Of course, if the machines mistakenly counted "overvotes" and/or "undervotes," then we've got even more issues to deal with.

Anyway, the bottom line is that there are thousands of ballots where - for a variety of reasons - the optical scan machines might not have been able to determine the intent of the voter. In those cases, what's supposed to happen in the "recount" is that these ballots will be examined by human beings to determine what the voter's intent was. For instance, if a bubble was marked for Obenshain, but not darkly enough for the machine to read, that's obviously a vote for Obenshain. Or, if someone marked an "x" through the bubble for Herring and the machine couldn't read it, that would clearly be a vote for Herring. Etc, etc. These are determinations that, in the end, only human beings - not machines - can make. And they haven't been made previously, so again this isn't a "recount" of those ballots, it's a FIRST count of ballots that had not been counted previously (at least for the races in which there were "undervotes" or "overvotes").

lowkell :: Actually, Virginia, This Isn't Really a "Recount"
If you're curious which jurisdictions in Virginia use which types of voting systems, see here. Note that WINVote and WINScan are touch screen machines; AccuVote-OS are optical scanners, as are M100 scanners/tabulators, the OPTECH IIIP-Eagle machine, etc. Also note that many of these machines (e.g., the M100) claim that they "[return] over-voted, under-voted and blank ballots while the LCD touch screen displays the race in question." We'll see soon enough if that worked as it was supposed to.

So what impact might all of this have on the Attorney General's race? It's hard to say. I looked into the rates of "undervotes" in other states and found a wide variance. For instance, this article reported that the Georgia Secretary of State "found that undervotes (the difference between the number of actual ballots cast and the number of votes recorded in final certified results) in the presidential race showed a statewide mean average of 4.4%," with "[t]he mean averages of counties aggregated by voting equipment...Punch Card: 4.6%, Optical Scan: 4.5% and Lever Machine: 4.2%." If that's the case in Virginia, that could imply around 4.5% times 28k (the lower number of votes cast for AG than for Governor) is around 1,260 votes total. (Actually, Ben pointed out to me that the number could be higher than 28k, because there could have been numerous people who didn't vote for governor for whatever reason - disliked all the candidates? - but DID attempt to vote for Attorney General) For Obenshain to overtake Herring's 165-vote lead, he'd have to win those 1,260 votes at a 57%-43% clip (713-547), which seems highly unlikely to occur.

In contrast, this article refers to a miniscule "0.12% rate of undervotes" by optical scanners in Florida in 2004. That would imply as few as 336 undervotes in Virginia on November 5. With Mark Herring leading by 165 votes, that would require Obenshain to win those 336 undervotes by a huge margin (251-85) to overtake Herring. And that's highly, highly improbable.

Perhaps the performance of optical scan machines in Virginia will vary widely by make, model, and condition of the machines? For instance, a knowledgeable person in Fairfax County told me that that county's optical scan machines "were bought used and are really 'cranky', so {there may be} LOTS of undervotes and overvotes" - on the order of 2,000+ in Fairfax County alone. Assuming these votes broke the same way the overall vote did on November 5 - approximately 61%-39% for Mark Herring - then this would imply a net gain for Herring of perhaps 400 votes or so in Fairfax County. Of course, as my Fairfax County source points out, how high or low this number is might very well come down to who's making the determination, ballot by ballot, particularly on really close calls.

Again, though, it's important to emphasize that none of the votes should have been counted previously, as they should have been rejected as unreadable and/or indecipherable by the optical scan machines. So, the bottom line is that to the extent we're talking about optical scan machines, at least, what we'll be seeing over the next few weeks is only partly a "recount" (in which the ballots are fed back through the machines, after the machines are properly calibrated) and partly a "new count" (in which votes that have never been counted before now can be counted by human beings using their judgment). It should be fascinating, although in the end my guess is that this process won't change the result, other than perhaps adding to Mark Herring's lead in places like Fairfax County. Stay tuned...

P.S. Also note that for touch-screen machines, there's no real way to "recount" them (totals will simply be added up again), so this isn't really a pure "recount" we're going to be seeing.

P.P.S. In the case of provisional and absentee ballots, they actually WILL be recounted by hand.

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Number of Voters (0.00 / 0)
Why does the machine in the picture indicate "Number of Voters: 2"?  Can you run more than one ballot  at a time?

No idea, it's just a random image (0.00 / 0)
of an optical scanner to illustrate the story - no significance to it other than that.

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[ Parent ]
Interpretation of Ballots With Unusual Marks (0.00 / 0)
Check out page 180 here for interpretations of paper ballots where the oval wasn't filled in.

Anyone correlated... (0.00 / 0)
... technology with how that county voted in the election?  If you go with the principle that touch screens lead to no actual recounting, it's just re-adding up the same numbers, but optical scanners involve reprocessing the ballots, then the locations where the scanners are involved will be the places where undervotes and overvotes are examined.  So, in a place like Norfolk (paper), those undervotes and overvotes, if they lead to someone interpreting intent, the ballots would likely break similar to the vote count in the city/county.

Also, the determination of really close calls is the elections board, which is 2-1 Republican in every jurisdiction, correct?  That could shift things the other way (although Fairfax's count seemed pretty kosher).

Over at NLS (0.00 / 0)
If you look at the latest thread over at NLS (, the first commenter claims that optical scanning skews heavily blue, while touchscreens skew heavily red.  He seems to have tried to include a link to some evidence, but it didn't come through.

If this is true, the undervotes that can be interpreted will indeed be expected to have pretty much the same break as the existing vote count in that locality, and that means Herring is bound to gain votes over Obenshain.  This could be anywhere from hundreds to thousands of votes added to Herring's margin, depending on how many undervotes can be rescued, and how the existing vote broke in the 1/3 of VA that voted on optically scanned ballots.

My understanding of the hand count interpretation of undervotes, is that one D and one R election official examine the ballots, and if they disagree, those ballots are referred to the 3-judge panel.

[ Parent ]
Winvote vs. Accuvote (0.00 / 0)
This chart from the SBE purports to show WINvote™ (electronic) vs. AccuVote™(optical scanner).  There's a few other systems I am unfamiliar with.

[ Parent ]
M100 AUTOMARK counties Red (0.00 / 0)
Hanover and Chesterfield appear to use Optical Scan which could be a source of a large number of undervotes for Obenshain.

[ Parent ]
Chesterfield (0.00 / 0)
Agreed.  Chesterfield should be interesting to watch.

[ Parent ]
Richmond City (0.00 / 0)
I also note Richmond City is 100% electronic touchscreen voting.  No undervotes.  

[ Parent ]
That spreadsheet (0.00 / 0)
I'm not sure how to interpret that spreadsheet of machinery.  Fairfax voted almost entirely on scanners, but the spreadsheet lists both kinds of machines.  It lists 1155 of the Winvote machines, which are touchscreen according to lowkell's original post, and 240 of the Accuvotes, which are scanners according to lowkell.  This spreadsheet looks like it's some sort of inventory, a list of the equipment the County owns.  1155 of the touchscreens sound about right for how many the county owns, with its 241 precincts, and 240 about right for the scanners.  I only saw one in operation where I voted.

At any rate, I'm not sure that this spreadsheet is terribly useful at figuring out how many people in a listed locality voted on which type of machine this year.  Fairfax seems to have left most of those 1155 touchscreens in the warehouse this year, and voted most people on its 240 scanners.  

[ Parent ]
Spreadsheet (4.00 / 1)
Good points all Glen.  That spreadsheet is only somewhat more clear to me than the Eleusinian Mysteries. On to the Recount and then the Contest!

[ Parent ]
Let's hope it's not anything like the Eleusinian Mysteries (0.00 / 0)
We don't know the details, but the Mysteries seem to have involved Sex and Death.  Let's hope that neither happens at any of the recount sites, nor anything else dramatic.

[ Parent ]
Rough sort (0.00 / 0)
All things being equal (which they never are and most certainly aren't in this calculation) and accounting for each jurisdiction with optical scan machines having equal number of voters using all jurisdictional voting machines, and assuming that these machines reflect the identical voting patterns as those for the whole county/city totals -- lot's of potential error here! Still, my gross estimate is that if NEW over-votes are counted fairly, that Herring would receive a 20% larger share of these votes for the total of all the optical scan jurisdictions.

Iechyd Da

Another way of putting it (0.00 / 0) that, to counteract the vote split in the localities that used scanners, Obenshain would have to benefit from some bias that made his voters 20% more likely to mark their ballots in ways that the scanners couldn't read, but humans can.  While you can imagine small effects along those lines -- that, for example, his voters might have averaged older, and so were less familiar with the bubble sheet format -- you can't get close to 20% with those sorts of factors.  

If your analysis is correct, and optically scanned VA went 60-40 for Herring, Obenshain doesn't have a chance.  

The possible flaw I see in your analysis, if I understand it, is that I doubt that you can assume "equal numbers of voters using all jurisdictional voting machines", at least not if you're using that spreadsheet that lowkell links to.  I only have what-actually-happened info for Fairfax, and Fairfax pretty clearly left most of the 1155 touchscreens the spreadsheet assigns it in the warehouse for this election.  If you assumed in your analysis that Fairfax voted 1155:240 on touchscreen:scanner, you underestimated Herring's potential pickup.  Of course, if Chesterfield left most of it touchscreens in the warehouse as well, that would partially compensate with some Obenshain pickups.  Your method works only insofar as jurisdictions tending to vote Herring vs Obenshain left their touchscreens in the warehouse in equal proportion.  

[ Parent ]

8th CD Dem Candidates
*Don Beyer *Lavern Chatman *Adam Ebbin *Bill Euille *Charniele Herring *Patrick Hope *Derek Hyra *Mark Levine *Alfonso Lopez *Bruce Shuttleworth *Mark Sickles *Nancy Najarian *Satish Korpe

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