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?
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.
How might reporters covering close elections anywhere learn from this race?
Don’t always trust the initial election results that you see, and make sure that they add up. Use whatever tools you have to identify possible discrepancies in the data. Those tools can include your own math skills, past election returns, and it can very possibly include your followers on social media who are capable of crowd-sourcing data and flagging possible errors much more comprehensively than one person can. I was going through this precinct-by-precinct, but I also had followers on Twitter whose names I don’t even know who were going through the state, combing through and identifying errors that I then catalogued into one Google document.
Had you not been involved, do you think the election would have turned out differently or would everything eventually have been all smoothed out?
It would have been figured out eventually. However, it would not have been brought to light as quickly. There may have been more questions from skeptical members of the public about the ways that election officials were changing their totals of votes, and it also might not have been unearthed until a recount, which would have generated a series of lawsuits.
The moment that drove all of this home for me―it was Wednesday night I believe, I received an email from a member of Governor McDonnell’s administration. And I was expecting that email to take me to task for shaming election officials for getting it wrong. Instead it said thank you, and we’re following up on your catalog with the state board of elections. So that went to show me that members of the bureaucracy in charge of counting votes are indeed paying attention to Twitter and social media.
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