A Stafford

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY LAURA VOZZELLA laura.vozzella@wash­post.com

Cir­cuit Court judge threw out a suit over a tight Vir­ginia House elec­tion.

stafford, va. — A Stafford Cir­cuit Court judge on Tues­day threw out a law­suit brought over a squeaker House of Del­e­gates elec­tion that could de­ter­mine whether Repub­li­cans hold their grip on the cham­ber.

But hours later, the Demo­crat trail­ing in that race filed an­other law­suit in fed­eral court.

The first law­suit, filed by the NAACP Le­gal De­fense and Ed­u­ca­tional Fund, as­serted that lo­cal elec­tions of­fi­cials gave “con­flict­ing and mis­lead­ing in­struc­tions” to vot­ers who were re­quired to cast pro­vi­sional bal­lots on Elec­tion Day.

The suit was just one front in the strug­gle for House con­trol, which could turn on three ex­ceed­ingly close elec­tions. All three ap­pear headed for state-funded re­counts. In one of the three, 10 votes sep­a­rate the can­di­dates.

Stafford County Cir­cuit Court Judge Vic­to­ria Wil­lis de­nied the le­gal de­fense fund’s re­quest for an in­junc­tion, which would have re­quired lo­cal elec­tions of­fi­cials to wait a week be­fore declar­ing a win­ner in the race.

The judge ruled that the group lacked stand­ing to bring the suit be­cause it was not clear that the two vot­ers named as plain­tiffs had been harmed.

The suit claimed that lo­cal elec­tions of­fi­cials gave con­fus­ing di­rec­tions to vot­ers about what they could do to en­sure that their pro­vi­sional bal­lots would be counted.

Sher­ri­lyn Ifill, pres­i­dent of the le­gal de­fense fund, told the judge that she had been un­able to con­firm re­ports that one or both of the plain­tiffs had at­tended an elec­tions board meet­ing a day ear­lier to de­fend their votes. Ifill said she had not been able to reach ei­ther.

Ifill in­di­cated in court that the group would seek to file an­other law­suit on be­half of other vot­ers who cast pro­vi­sional bal­lots.

In the mean­time, Wil­lis’s rul­ing cleared the way for the county elec­toral board to be­gin count­ing pro­vi­sional bal­lots cast in the race to suc­ceed re­tir­ing House speaker Wil­liam J. How­ell (R-Stafford).

On elec­tion night, Repub­li­can Robert Thomas led Demo­crat Joshua Cole by 86 votes, a mar­gin later ad­justed to 84 af­ter a few er­rors were cor­rected. Af­ter tal­ly­ing pro­vi­sional bal­lots Tues­day, Cole picked up two votes, shav­ing Thomas’s lead to 82.

The board also voted against count­ing 55 ab­sen­tee bal­lots that were in dis­pute. The Demo­cratic Party of Vir­ginia said on Veter­ans Day that those bal­lots, be­lieved to be from ac­tive-duty mil­i­tary vot­ers, were left in the reg­is­trar’s mail­box on Elec­tion Day.

But elec­tions of­fi­cials, Democrats and Repub­li­cans alike, said that was not the case. The bal­lots were run-of-the-mill ab­sen­tee bal­lots and were not de­liv­ered un­til 10 a.m. Nov. 8, the morn­ing af­ter the elec­tion, they said.

Elec­toral Board Chair­man Doug Filler, whose daugh­ter is Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fair­fax), ar­gued that the bal­lots should be counted, sug­gest­ing that the post of­fice might have been re­spon­si­ble for their de­layed ar­rival.

But the two other board mem­bers — Repub­li­can Glo­ria Chit­tum and Demo­crat Marie Gozzi — said state law was clear that they could not count ab­sen­tee bal­lots that ar­rive af­ter polls close at 7 p.m.

By Tues­day night, the Vir­ginia House Demo­cratic Cau­cus an­nounced it had filed a law­suit on Cole’s be­half in Fed­eral Court in Alexan­dria, de­mand­ing that the 55 ab­sen­tee bal­lots be counted.

“We are dis­ap­pointed with today’s de­ci­sion of the Stafford County Elec­toral Board not to count the 55 ab­sen­tee bal­lots er­ro­neously ex­cluded from this year’s elec­tion re­sults,” Marc Elias, the cau­cus’s at­tor­ney, said in a writ­ten state­ment.

House Ma­jor­ity Leader M. Kirk­land Cox (R-Colo­nial Heights), who is in line to be­come speaker if the GOP holds the ma­jor­ity, praised Stafford’s board for vot­ing “to up­hold the law.”

“De­spite mul­ti­ple un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts by Democrats to lit­i­gate the re­sults of this elec­tion, the law was ap­plied fairly and evenly by the com­mon­wealth’s judges and elec­toral boards, pre­serv­ing the in­tegrity of the elec­toral process as well as the con­sti­tu­tional rights of all vot­ers who law­fully par­tic­i­pated in the elec­tion,” Cox said.

On Nov. 7, Democrats made huge gains in the House and swept statewide of­fices for gov­er­nor, lieu­tenant gov­er­nor and at­tor­ney gen­eral.

Be­fore the elec­tion, Repub­li­cans en­joyed a 66-to-34 ma­jor­ity in Rich­mond’s lower cham­ber. Now, Democrats are within strik­ing dis­tance of tak­ing con­trol. They need one more vic­tory to force a power-shar­ing deal with Repub­li­cans and two more to take the reins of the cham­ber for the first time since 2000. Democrats have se­cured wins in 49 out of 100 seats, with Repub­li­cans hold­ing nar­row leads in the Thomas-Cole con­test and two oth­ers.

Af­ter elec­tions of­fi­cials ex­am­ined pro­vi­sional bal­lots cast in District 40 on Mon­day, Del. Ti­mothy D. Hugo (R-Fair­fax) saw his 115-vote lead over Demo­crat Donte Tan­ner shrink to 106 votes. In District 94, Del. David E. Yancey (R-New­port News) had his 13-vote lead over Demo­crat Shelly Si­monds dwin­dle to 10.

Re­counts can­not be­gin un­til elec­tion re­sults are cer­ti­fied shortly be­fore Thanks­giv­ing.

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