By Julie Hirschfeld Davis
FAIRFAX, Va. —
A day after he took to Twitter last week to question the vote-count in the Virginia attorney general race, an email from a top state official popped into David Wasserman's inbox.
Wasserman, a political analyst with encyclopedic knowledge of Virginia's voting patterns, figured he was in for a tirade. In the aftermath of the Nov. 5 election, he had been combing through the state's ballot count and posting Twitter messages about problems and discrepancies.
"I was expecting them to say, 'Stop denigrating our electoral process.' Instead they said, 'I want to thank you for the public service you're doing'," Wasserman, the House Editor at the Washington-based nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said in an interview.
Virginia's cliffhanger of an attorney general's race is the first in which Twitter, the micro-blogging social media platform, has played a prominent part in the vote certification, and it may offer a model for how close elections play out in the age of social networking.
Conceived seven years ago as a web-enabled conveyor of chirp-like chatter in 140 characters or less, Twitter has become an indispensable resource in Virginia for campaign operatives, local officials, journalists and election watchers to trade information and track data to help ensure ballots are being properly tabulated in the still-undeclared race.
Democrat Mark R. Herring Tuesday night took a 163-vote lead in the battle to become the state's chief law enforcement official, after local officials completed tallies they will give to the state for certification. The preliminary count on election night and into the next day showed varying leads for the Republican candidate, Mark Obenshain. The closeness of the race in which 2.2 million ballots were cast will likely lead to a recount.
Wasserman, 29, who describes himself as a "quant-politics- data-nerd," was one of several analysts who used Twitter to crowdsource the vote-count in real time. Their posted messages were the first to chronicle a set of irregularities that, once scrurinized, swayed the vote count.
"It's clear that the future of canvass and recount scrutiny is social media, and Twitter is an incredibly powerful tool," said Wasserman, who has fielded, vetted and posted tips on dozens of vote discrepancies throughout Virginia via Twitter - many from people whose real names he doesn't know. He also picked up about 3,000 new followers over the past week.
"The vast majority, if not all, of these errors would have been unearthed by the traditional process of canvassing votes, but it might have taken a lot longer for them to come to light and it might have been a lot less clear in the meantime who was ahead at any point in the race and whether people could trust the process," Wasserman said.
The result could change the way Americans view election outcomes, increasing confidence by shining light on a vote- counting system that frequently seems opaque and error-prone.
"It has certainly opened up the process in a way that probably gives people a greater sense that they know what went on here," said Marc Elias, chairman of the political law practice at the Washington-based firm Perkins Coie, who was the lead attorney for Al Franken in a 2008 recount in Minnesota that certified the Democrat's election to the U.S. Senate.
"Twitter is definitely a democratizing tool that gives more voices and, because it's crowdsourced, allows for a critical mass to develop," Elias said.
While the company didn't set out to be a player in ballot- canvassing, the Virginia experience represents an expansion of its political applications. Twitter is a must-watch site for fact-checkers during candidate debates, and it served as an organizing hub for the "Arab Spring" uprisings in the Middle East. That political use of its instant communication capacity "enhances the value of the platform," said Nu Wexler, a Twitter spokesman.
"Twitter isn't the arbiter of whether an election is valid or whether a race should be called; we just facilitate a conversation about the topic," Wexler said.
In Democratic-leaning Fairfax County last week, Electoral Board Secretary Brian W. Schoeneman was watching the Twitter postings about oddities in his area. The ones from Wasserman asserted that as many as 3,000 absentee ballots were uncounted.
Schoeneman, himself a prolific Twitter user, decided he needed to debunk the various charges. When he pulled up the voting figures, he realized there was a problem.
"At first I questioned, 'Is this just a conspiracy theory, or are they serious?' And then after a while I realized, they're serious, and I looked at the numbers, and you know what? They were right," Schoeneman said in an interview during a break in a board meeting to evaluate provisional ballots. "They caught it about a full day to at least 12 hours faster than we would have."
Schoeneman then used Twitter to confirm the problem.
"We are working on this as we speak," Schoeneman posted Nov. 7 in a tweet directed at Wasserman and Ben Tribbett, a Virginia-based blogger and Democratic political consultant who was among those writing about the vote inconsistencies. "I am convinced now too that there is an issue."
There are limits to the influence Twitter can have on ensuring ballot integrity in close races.
Ben Ginsberg, a lawyer at Washington-based Patton Boggs who represented George W. Bush in the 2000 Florida recount that culminated in the Republican winning the presidency, said that while technology and modes of communication have changed, vote- tabulation hasn't.
"It would have been helpful to us to have some of the information quicker" in 2000, Ginsberg said in an interview, yet "I'm not sure it changes the fact that the votes are the votes at the end of the day."
Virginia's case also may not be translatable to many other U.S. races, at least for now. The state has among the most transparent vote-reporting systems in the country, enabling a level of real-time analysis not possible elsewhere.
"In other states, no one would have seen the sausage being made, but here social media, because of the transparency, enabled people to beat election officials to the correction of errors that would have happened anyway," said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at Fairfax, Va.-based George Mason University who specializes in elections.
"Nobody knows for sure" whether the mistakes would have been caught before results were certified, said McDonald, who was among the Twitter crowdsourcers watching the race. "I think that the error would have been found in the recount," he said.
Still, officials in both parties said they were grateful for the scrutiny Twitter sparked, saying it complemented what their lawyers were already doing while ensuring that the will of the voters would prevail.
"It did get people to say, 'Let's get this right, we really need to get this right'," said Bettina Lawton, a vice chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee. "And there are so many eyes on this now that it will come out right."
Paul Logan, Obenshain's communications director, said Twitter has played a "huge role" in keeping reporters, voters and aides informed during the certification process.
"It's allowed us to both stay abreast of what's out there and also to quickly identify and correct false rumors before they set in," Logan said. "When looking for the latest on what's happening in the canvass, reporters, citizens and the campaign teams are all looking to Twitter."