CHARLESTON, SC — A week and a half after Election Day, the outcome of Virginia’s race for attorney general remains not quite settled—despite a tug-of-war in the headlines that have declared, at various times, Republican Mark Obenshain and Democrat Mark Herring as being in the lead. After Tuesday’s deadline for local boards to certify their election results, unofficial statewide totals show Herring ahead by 164 votes out of 2.2 million cast. If that holds up, Democrats will control all five statewide offices and both U.S. Senate seats in Virginia for the first time since Woodstock. But a recount is possible, and no one who’s been paying attention so far would be surprised to see things change again.
One thing is certain, though: the past 10 days have seen a new standard for scrutinizing contested election results, and the emergence of a social media star at that line of work. It’s already been said that what National Review reporter Robert Costa was to the government shutdown, David Wasserman has been to this previously obscure election for the commonwealth’s top prosecutor.
Wasserman is the 29-year-old wunderkind political analyst and self-described “quant-politics nerd” who serves as the U.S. House editor for the non-partisan Cook Political Report. His precinct-level knowledge of Virginia politics, statistical savvy, and obsessive bird-dogging on Twitter of election bureaucrats have been key factors in bringing problems with the vote-counting to light—and getting them corrected.
Tweeting as @Redistrict, and armed with spreadsheet data he compiled throughout the vote-counting process, Wasserman began sounding alarms in real time, challenging officials’ initial declarations that all ballots had been counted in certain areas. He crowd-sourced his findings, relied on tips, and shared a Google document with others who were able add insight and context. Discounted at first, Wasserman’s efforts ultimately led election officials—who, he’s quick to note, set their own high standards for transparency and engagement—to uncover uncounted ballots in certain precincts. (ABC News has a good short look at Wasserman’s post-Election Night feed here.)
Thursday evening, I caught up with Wasserman over the phone to talk about the role social media played in this election, how he thought the traditional press handled coverage of the see-sawing results in real time, and what tips he might offer other journalists covering close elections. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation (I’ve added Twitter hashtags where appropriate):
Tell me a little bit about how Twitter shaped your coverage of this race.
The goal of using Twitter to crowd-source potential errors in election tallies was not to shame election officials, it was to help them. In the heat of an election night, numbers can be tallied incorrectly, and in the fog of battle, weary election workers can transpose numbers, or fail to see numbers, correctly. And most of the time those errors can be unearthed simply be comparing precinct-by-precinct results of past year’s results or to other races on the ballot to look for under-votes or over-votes. That’s exactly what we were able to do with some spreadsheet work, and it was apparent from Election Night that there were some major discrepancies that needed to be addressed.
Take us back to Election Night and what specifically you did to uncover irregularities.
The race was very close and we were waiting to see which precincts were still outstanding. Then we moved on to checking the results precinct-by-precinct, and one of the first things I noticed was the absentee ballot count in Fairfax County looked low. You can go back to my tweets on Nov. 6 when I said that I wasn’t convinced that Fairfax was done counting its absentee ballots, and right afterwards the secretary of the elections board in Fairfax County responded to my tweet and said: To respond to rumors flying around we are done counting absentee ballots, there are no more ballots left to count.
Well, using some math and my familiarity with Virginia’s precincts, it was apparent that the drop-off rate in Fairfax County was far higher from 2012 than it was in the 10th or 11th district. And when I confronted the secretary of the board of elections with that math he acknowledged that there must be a problem. And on that Thursday night he forwarded that on to his superior, the general registrar, who then called for a canvass meeting the next morning to look at the district votes, which, they did and they found 3,008 additional votes for attorney general. So that was the #SevenCornersSurprise. Because there’s a neighborhood in Fairfax County called Seven Corners were these votes were counted wrong to begin with or not fully tallied.
And there were more revelations the following day?