Against the Virginia AG Recount

by Jason Richwine

The Virginia race for attorney general appears headed for a recount.

I don’t like recounts. My first-ever piece for NRO called for abolishing them, and my opinion hasn’t changed. Close elections are essentially ties, in which neither candidate deserves to win more than the other. Recounts are just expensive and time-consuming coin flips.

Democrat Mark Herring currently leads his Republican opponent, Mark Obenshain, by 164 votes, which amounts to 0.007 percent of all votes cast. Herring’s online statement reads: “The margin was close, but it is clear that Virginians have chosen me to serve as the next Attorney General.”

No, it’s not clear at all. Such a razor-thin margin means the true winner is unknowable. Even if a recount flips the result and shows Obenshain eking out a lead, there would be no mandate for Obenshain, either. From my earlier article:

Just as pre-election polls have a margin of error, there is a certain amount of randomness in actual voting. . . . Where does this randomness come from? Weather patterns affecting turnout in certain areas, for starters. Some voters also forget to register or to mail in their absentee ballots, accidentally check the wrong box on their ballots, or show up too late at the polls. We have also seen bureaucratic errors made by poll workers, such as wrongly allowing or disallowing certain people to cast ballots. Even leaving aside these procedural mistakes, some voters are simply misinformed. A Pew Research Center survey conducted last summer found that 10 percent of registered voters believed Barack Obama opposed abortion rights . . .

Random noise in the vote total is irrelevant in an ordinary election, but it can be decisive in a close one. In extremely close elections, pundits often make the common mistake of trying to impute meaning – in this case, the “will of the people” – from random perturbations in a data set.

Neither Herring nor Obenshain can claim to have majority support under any recount scenario – the election is a tie regardless. So follow whatever standard procedures are in place for counting the votes, but then declare a winner and move on. Skip the pointless recount.

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