Virginia House recount underway; could affirm GOP majority

Election officials and observers in Virginia Beach, Va., gather to scan and review ballots for a recount of votes in Virginia's 85th House District on Thursday Dec. 2, 2021. The 85th House District is one of the two outstanding vote recounts that will settle whether Virginia Republicans have reclaimed the majority in the House of Delegates. (AP photo/Ben Finley)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Election officials began the painstaking process Thursday of recounting votes in one of two unresolved races in Virginia that will settle whether Republicans have reclaimed the majority in the state’s House of Delegates and completed a party sweep of last month’s contests.

Representatives from both the Republican and Democratic parties took part in the secondary counting of ballots requested by Democratic Del. Alex Askew, who currently represents the 85th House District. The district covers a portion of the city of Virginia Beach.

Askew and fellow Democratic Del. Martha Mugler of the 91st District requested recounts after certified results from the Nov. 2 election showed their GOP challengers ahead by razor-thin margins.

The recount in the 91st District, which covers the cities of Hampton and Poquoson and York County, is expected to take place next week, on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Republicans — who won 52 districts, according to the certified results — have said they are confident their candidates’ leads will hold.

Electoral board officials said Thursday that they were recounting about 20,000 ballots that were cast in person on election day in the 85th District. But they also recounted all of the city’s early-voting and mail-in ballots — about 54,000 ballots — to ensure that they were accounting for all ballots that were meant for the 85th District.

Election officials expect there to be a total of roughly 28,000 votes cast in the 85th District, including in-person votes as well as those cast by mail or in early voting. They expected to complete the entire recount by Thursday evening.

On Thursday morning, a few dozen people packed into a room in the second floor of an elections building in Virginia Beach as the ballots were fed into two different scanning machines. Groups of four or five people sat at a handful of tables and looked at any ballots that were determined by the machines to have write-in candidates, were not clearly marked or had some other issue.

Only 16 ballots of the roughly 1,000 that were first scanned in a machine Thursday morning had to be reviewed by a human, said Dave Belote, the Democratic vice chair of the electoral board. Most of those were “undervotes,” meaning the voter selected a candidate for governor or other statewide office but not for someone in the House of Delegates. One of the ballots was a write-in for Bugs Bunny, Belote said.

If the recounts confirm the Republicans’ victories in both the 85th and 91st Districts, it will mark a GOP sweep in last month’s election, when its candidates claimed the statewide offices of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Those wins marked a dramatic turnaround in a state where the GOP had not won a statewide race since 2009.

Virginia’s top elections official, Chris Piper, has said the recounts are unlikely to change the outcomes of the races because of the size of the margins. If both Askew and Mugler were declared winners through the recounts, the House would be tied 50-50, forcing Democrats and Republicans to hash out a power-sharing agreement.

Askew currently trails Republican Karen Greenhalgh by 127 votes out of 28,413 counted. Mugler trails Republican A.C. Cordoza by 94 votes out of 27,388 counted. The Associated Press hasn’t called either race.

Both Mugler and Askew are incumbent freshmen who were first elected in 2019, when Democrats flipped both the House and Senate.

Recounts in Virginia are not automatic and must be requested. Because the margins in the Askew-Greenhalgh and Mugler-Cordoza races were under 0.5%, the costs will be covered by the state.

On Friday, any ballots either side decides to challenge will be presented to a three-judge panel, which will go through them individually and rule on how they should be counted, Lewis said.