Preliminary hearings set for 3 Virginia House recounts, 4th pending

WASHINGTON — Judges are set to hear recount petitions in three Virginia House of Delegates races this week, while a fourth has yet to be scheduled.

The preliminary hearings mark the initial step in the recount process, which campaign and election officials said could be completed by Christmas.

Control of the House of Delegates is at stake with Republicans hoping to maintain, or improve, their 51-49 majority and Democrats hoping for an even split when lawmakers return to Richmond in January. Regardless of the outcome, the recount is not expected to rectify 147 votes cast in the wrong House races in the Stafford County and Fredericksburg area, and Democrats said Monday that they continue to consider their legal options.

Democratic challenger Joshua Cole filed a recount petition in the 28th District on Friday and a hearing in circuit court has not yet been scheduled.

Defeated Republican incumbent Manoli Loupassi also sought a recount in the 68th District in Richmond. That hearing is set for Tuesday.

Hearings are scheduled Wednesday in the 94th District in Newport News and in the 40th District, which includes parts of Prince William and Fairfax counties. Cameron Sasnett, Fairfax County registrar, said the timeline for the 40th District recount should by known by Wednesday.

Just 106 votes separate Republican incumbent Tim Hugo and Democratic challenger Donte Tanner.

The recount in the 28th District, where 82 votes separate Cole and Republican Bob Thomas, could extend into late December, said Trent Armitage, executive director of the Virginia House Democratic Caucus.

“We felt the recount was necessary with how close the race was,” said Cole’s campaign manager, Eric Sundberg.

However, the recount will not address the voters who were assigned to the wrong House district — those 147 votes will be counted again in the wrong district, he said.

Sundberg called it “absurd” to dismiss the incorrect district assignments as run-of-the-mill election errors and said the Cole campaign would fight to make sure voters’ voices are heard.

“It really brings into question how good are elections in Virginia if this is something that is acceptable,” he said.

He said problems with those district assignments would be handled separately from the recount.

“We’re going to look for another route … and make sure those 147 votes are counted in the right district,” Sundberg said.

Sasnett — the Fairfax County registrar — said that recounts just verify the math. Any discrepancies found as a result of the recount would be addressed by contesting the election to the House of Delegates.

Thomas did not return a call seeking comment Monday. But House Republicans, who blasted the state Board of Elections for delaying certification of the 28th District, said in a statement that they had expected the recounts.

“We are committed to open, fair, and honest elections in which all votes lawfully cast by eligible voters are counted,” the statement said.

What happens next

According to Sasnett, the chief judge of the circuit court oversees any recount and would put together a panel with two other judges from other localities. The judges would determine whether the candidate qualifies for a recount — if the margin of victory is 1 percent or less, and if deadlines and other legal requirements were met.

It is possible for the judges to dismiss a recount petition. Last year, a petition for a recount for a Herndon Town Council seat was dismissed because the candidate didn’t meet the filing and notification deadline, Sasnett said.

A final hearing would be held with the three-judge panel before they would order localities to begin the recount, which would take place soon after.

Working around the three judges’ schedules and logistics could delay the second hearing or the recount, Sasnett said.

In the case of House races, the bubble sheets that Virginia uses as ballots might need to be transported to one central location so the ballots from different localities could be recounted together.

The actual counting of ballots should take about a day, and the judges would be present in case they should need to rule on any questionable ballots, Sasnett said.

Each ballot would be fed into the ballot tabulation machines and only a few would be evaluated by hand, he said.

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