Questions are swirling around two close elections in the Fredericksburg region that appear destined for recounts.
In a conference call Friday, House Democratic Caucus Executive Director Trent Armitage said that 55 military ballots delivered to the Stafford County registrar’s post office box on Tuesday—Election Day—went uncounted because they were not picked up until Wednesday. Democrats said they had no way of knowing which candidates the 55 votes went for, but the ballots arrived on time and came from active-duty military personnel.
“We find that to be absolutely ridiculous,” Armitage said.
Stafford Supervisor Laura Sellers, a Democrat, lost her Garrisonville District seat to Republican Mark Dudenhefer by just 15 votes. And Republican Bob Thomas holds an 83-vote lead over Democrat Joshua Cole in the race for the 28th District House of Delegates seat representing parts of Fredericksburg and Stafford.
In a statement, the Virginia House Democrats specifically called on two members of Stafford’s Electoral Board, Republican Gloria Chittum and Democrat Marie Gozzi, to count the absentee ballots. Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, called the failure to do so “disgraceful.”
Stafford Registrar Greg Riddlemoser did not return a phone message or respond to an email request for comment on Friday, and no one answered the phone at the Stafford registrar’s office. County offices were closed for Veterans Day.
A message left at a number listed for Gozzi was not immediately returned Friday. A man who answered the phone at a number listed for Chittum said she was not available and “there’s nothing to be said to you” before hanging up the phone.
In a separate issue, Sellers said the county registrar is not releasing the names and addresses on provisional ballots cast there, an allegation at least being watched by ACLU Virginia.
“We are concerned by the apparent refusal of the Registrar, allegedly with the support of the Local Electoral Board, to make available for review and copying the provisional ballot logs that each precinct is required to keep,” ACLU Virginia said in an email statement to The Free Lance–Star Friday.
Voters who show up to the polls without a valid ID can cast a provisional ballot. It will be counted only if the voter brings a copy of his or her ID to the electoral board before the vote is certified.
“We believe that these are public documents under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, and that the Registrar’s decision not to make them available is wrong. Moreover, the Registrar’s failure to be forthcoming about this and other issues that voters have raised about the election and the vote count undercuts people’s faith in the integrity of the election itself,” the ACLU statement continued.
Sellers said the reported uncounted military votes, combined with the provisional ballots, could tilt the election in her and Cole’s favor. Regardless, she plans to ask for a recount.
Thomas, the Republican who narrowly defeated Cole for the 28th District House seat, said he was “not really privy to the details” of the disqualified military ballots. But he said he’d love to see them counted.
“We obviously feel like if they’re 55 truly military ballots, they would probably break in our favor,” Thomas said.
Mark Dudenhefer, the apparent winner of the Garrisonville seat on the Stafford board, called the complaints hypocritical.
"If the Democrats don’t like the outcome, they want to change the rules retroactively," Dudenhefer said in the email. "Unlike them, I believe in obeying the law. The Registrar is obeying the law. I bet that if they were on the winning side of the numbers, they would fight against what they are trying to do."
The 28th District vote is drawing statewide attention because it is among three in which the official outcomes will determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the House of Delegates. Democrats won 49 seats in the 100-member House Tuesday, but trail in the unofficial results for the 28th, 40th (Fairfax) and 94th (Newport News) districts.
Concern that some Fredericksburg voters received the wrong ballots Tuesday is also adding drama to the 28th District House contest.
The confusion stems from Fredericksburg’s “split” polling places, where some voters received ballots listing 28th District candidates while others got ballots with the 88th District contenders instead.
Fredericksburg Registrar Marc Hoffman said his office received feedback on Election Day about issues involving the 88th and 28th districts, but he didn’t elaborate. “These concerns were forwarded to the [Virginia] Department of Elections, and I’m continuing to work with them to assess the issue,” he said Thursday.
The Virginia code’s definition of the 28th and 88th districts appears to contradict boundary maps, raising questions about whether some Fredericksburg residents voted in the right House election. A spokesman for the Cole campaign said attorneys are reviewing the matter.
“We’re in this for the long haul,” Cole campaign manager Eric Sundberg said. “The people need a clear answer.”
University of Mary Washington professor Stephen Farnsworth said the confusion “speaks to the problems of gerrymandering.”
The 28th District used to include all of Fredericksburg, until the Republican-controlled General Assembly approved new boundaries in 2011 that critics say were drawn for political reasons. Now Fredericksburg is split between the 28th and 88th districts.
“By trying to draw district boundaries block by block, you’re making a very difficult environment for election authorities around the state,” Farnsworth said.