The second thing that came to light the next day is the #BedfordBlast, which is in Bedford County, where there were close to 700 votes that had not been tallied on Election Night that ended up benefiting the Republican. Then a Democratic source had alerted me to a possible discrepancy in Richmond where several precincts had not fully counted their ballots, or the tally sheet that the general registrar had didn’t match what the state board of elections had in their system and the results they were reporting for the rest of the state. So we named that the #ShockoeSlipUp after the Shockoe Slip neighborhood of Richmond. And sure enough when Richmond canvased its ballots in a very, very public way on Monday they added another 190 votes to one precincts’s total and that ended up switching the lead in the race from Obenshain being ahead by 17 votes to Herring being ahead by 99.
Were you surprised elections officials were engaging you so publicly throughout the process?
[Fairfax election board secretary] Brian Schoeneman is really the model of official election counters engaging in social media. I think his example is one, if the only, in the state, and it added a level of transparency to the process. He put himself out there on Twitter to be held accountable for counting votes correctly. Can’t say that about many election officials.
How different is Virginia’s election board and the way it counts ballots in real time to other states you might follow?
I’d rate Virginia’s transparency very highly. A lot of partisans are fanning the flames of conspiracy theories by saying since there’s a Republican governor, there’s two Republicans and only one Democrat on every election board in the state, but the beauty of partisans serving in those roles is that they’re able to flag misbehavior and keep the process honest. I haven’t seen a single reason to doubt election boards’ motivations in getting to the bottom of every vote.
Where was traditional media as all this unfolded? Reporters were running it down, right?
These kinds of discrepancies were first reported on Twitter. Traditional media was behind the curve for the most part because it did not have the capabilities of crowd-sourcing these errors. The Washington Post had several different reporters who were trying to gather facts about the race but there were numerous instances in which the Post failed to bring the public the most accurate or most up-to-date info. The first was on Election Night when the Post website read that Obenshain appeared to have won a very close race. I was reporting live on Election Night that the precincts outstanding were more than capable of putting Herring in the lead, but that was what The Washington Post was reporting.
Then, a couple days later, after I was reporting that there were at least 3,000 missing ballots in Fairfax County, the Post put out an article that quoted a Fairfax election official as saying that there were only up to 2,000 absentee ballots that hadn’t been included in the count. That turned out to be wrong, and my math clearly demonstrated why that was wrong. And then the Post also relied on the words of another reporter in Richmond who said that the Shockoe Slip-up was a false alarm. A couple days later it turned out there were indeed, as I was reporting, 190 missing votes in Richmond that could change the tally. So it was frustrating. It was at once satisfying to be ahead of traditional media in reporting what was going on in the tally, but it was also frustrating to have to push back against mainstream reports that turned out to be wrong or were old.
What about local press coverage in those areas like Fairfax, etc.?
Local press were very good at bringing color to the story and capturing the scene of the electoral board canvass in Richmond or the canvass of provisional ballots in Fairfax County, but the local reporters did not really have the time or capacity to identify discrepancies in the vote.
What advantages do you have in your position at the Cook Political Report to do that differently?
This is probably the only state in the country where I could pull something like this off. I’ve been obsessed for a long time with how each and every precinct in the state behaves politically and reports its results. But, I’d say that my advantage is that I have the spreadsheet skills to be able to compare large quantities of data quickly and identify outliers. I’m a total quant-politics nerd, so this is probably the only time of year when I’d have a journalistic edge on a lot of other reporters. In this instance the problems fit my skill set well.