Stafford Co. delays final election tally; Thomas leads Cole in 28th District race

STAFFORD, Va. — The Stafford County Electoral Board voted 2 to 1 Monday to delay certification of the vote count until Tuesday amid questions about some provisional and absentee ballots.

In one of the tightest contests for Virginia delegate, the race to replace retiring Republican House Speaker Bill Howell in the 28th District had a margin of fewer than 100 votes between Republican Bob Thomas and Democrat Joshua Cole.

Stafford County’s Garrisonville District supervisor race had a margin of just 15 votes. The Republican candidates lead in both races, but the Democratic candidates are expected to request recounts.

The Electoral Board delayed its final provisional ballot meeting until 10 a.m. Tuesday, giving provisional voters more time to present identification so that their ballot could be counted.

55 absentee ballots disputed

Democrats are arguing that more ballots should be counted — including 55 absentee ballots that Registrar Greg Riddlemoser said were picked up by county mailroom staff Wednesday morning, after the 7 p.m. Tuesday deadline.

Virginia law requires absentee ballots be received by the registrar before the polls close in order to be counted.

Electoral Board Chairman Doug Filler said that the board has asked for a judicial ruling on whether the 55 absentee ballots could be counted because of the possibility that some were delivered to the county’s post office box between 6:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Unlike many other jurisdictions in Virginia, the Stafford County Electoral Board has not put ballot-specific bar codes on absentee envelopes that would allow precise U.S. Postal Service tracking.

“It’s going to be a judicial decision so that the judge or judges who hear this case will have to decide in their best judgment. Because there is no, to my knowledge, no definitive confirmation that they either were or were not received in a timely fashion because of the absence of this bar code,” Filler said.

Filler said the state had offered to pay for the bar codes, but the county had not acted on that.

Filler, one of two Democratic-appointees on the board, still hoped to count the ballots. The county Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, which represents the electoral board in legal cases, did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on how such a ruling would be requested or issued.

“We do not have the legal right to require those votes to be accepted at this point, simply because there is no firm documentation as to whether they were received in a timely fashion or not,” Filler said.

Republican appointee Gloria Chittum said a legal opinion could be helpful, but that based on Virginia law she saw no way the ballots could count.

“I was in the registrar’s office at 7 o’clock Tuesday night, and those ballots were not there,” she said.

“I voted that we not count them because of the law that says that we cannot,” Chittum said.

While the board initially decided not to count the absentee ballots, Marie Gozzi, the second Democratic appointee, said Monday that the votes ideally would count.

“I would certainly be open to any legal way to find a way. But, on the other hand, if the voter didn’t put it in, if they put it in too late, we do have to rely on an active, involved voter, so we are trying our best,” Gozzi said.

Provisional voter deadline extended

Separate from the absentee ballots, Democratic campaigns have questioned a delay in the release of information about provisional voters that candidates on both sides typically use to reach out to those voters and ensure they appear with photo identification or other supporting information for their vote to count.

The campaigns finally received that information late Sunday as a typed-up spreadsheet.

The delay and potentially confusing information online due to the Veteran’s Day holiday office closure Friday were two of the reasons cited for extending the time for provisional voters to support their ballot until a meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Stafford County Government Center.

Virginia state law set that deadline as noon Monday.

Chittum voted against the extension for providing provisional information. She wanted the board to make final decisions on which provisional ballots would be counted Monday afternoon – as Stafford County has done traditionally and most other jurisdictions across the state did.

Local boards must certify their election results to the state by 5 p.m. Tuesday. The State Board of Elections is due to certify all results next Monday.

After certification, candidates who lost by less than 1 percent of the votes cast in their races have a legal right to request a recount. When the margin is less than 0.5 percent, the candidate does not have to pay for the recount.

At stake

Democrat Joshua Cole said Monday he plans to seek a recount if he remains behind Republican Supervisor Bob Thomas in the 28th District, which covers parts of Stafford County and Fredericksburg. Cole’s campaign is also examining potential legal challenges in addition to a recount.

In Fairfax and Prince William counties, Del. Tim Hugo maintained his lead over Democratic challenger Donte Tanner. Tanner inched closer to Hugo Monday afternoon with a net gain of nine votes from provisional ballots that were accepted in Fairfax and Prince William counties.

A Republican also leads in a third race in Newport News by about a dozen votes.

If all three Republicans win, the GOP would retain control the House of Delegates by a 51-49 margin.

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