A Week After Polls Closed, Va. AG Race Still Too Close To Call

Discouraged by the Republican candidate for governor's showing in the polls, GOP donors begin pouring money into the Virginia attorney general race. Now, that contest is showing a 117 vote margin with Democrat Mark Herring ahead, though there have been several lead changes as provisional ballots have been tallied.

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A week after election day, Virginians still don't know who their next attorney general will be. In an exceptionally close race, Democrat Mark Herring leads Republican Mark Obenshain by a mere 117 votes. More than 2 million votes were cast. The lead has changed hands several times as provisional ballots were tallied and some overlooked ballots discovered. NPR's Brian Naylor reports on the drama as it has played out on social media.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: On election night in Virginia, the focus of most everyone's attention was on the governors race, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe squeezed out a closer-than-projected win over Republican Ken Cuccinelli. But it turns out, there was a much closer race down ballot. What makes the Virginia attorney general's race interesting is the way it's played out over the past week, says elections expert Richard Hasen of the University of California, Irvine.

RICHARD HASEN: Well, there's two things going on. One is it's very close, so people are paying attention. Second is that social media, especially Twitter, is providing for real-time updates across the state for election geeks to follow. And so that you have the drama and the data coming together.

NAYLOR: The drama includes several lead changes. They were brought on by the discovery of uncounted ballots in a Richmond neighborhood, what's been dubbed on Twitter as #shockoesslipup, which gave Democrat Herring a hundred new votes, the Bedford blast that gave Republican Obenshain some 400 more votes and the seven corners surprise, which added over a thousand votes from Democratic-leaning Fairfax County, outside Washington, to Herring's total.

George Mason University political scientist Michael McDonald says the Virginia system lends itself to transparency. And because of tools like Twitter, election results are being crowdsourced.

MICHAEL MCDONALD: We've already seen a couple of instances now where social media picked up, say, absentee ballots that appeared to be missing out of Fairfax County, Wednesday morning, and then by Thursday evening, the election officials said, yes, there's something that really requires further investigation here.

NAYLOR: This year's election for attorney general in Virginia is not the first to be decided by the tiniest of margins. In 2005, the now outgoing Virginia governor, Bob McDonell, was elected AG by just 360 votes. In recent years, the governor's race in Washington, a Minnesota Senate race and, of course, the 2000 presidential election, were all decided by extremely slim margins. The University of California's Hasen says tight races haven't necessarily become the norm in American politics but the spotlight is brighter.

HASEN: I don't know that the number of close elections is any larger. I just think that we've politicized our election process and people realize that the rules of the game do matter since Florida 2000. And so, in a hyper-polarized atmosphere where everyone's paying attention to the rules and the rise of social media, I think these things just get a lot more attention that they used to.

NAYLOR: Results in the Virginia attorney general's race will be certified later this month and it looks very likely there will be a recount. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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