UPDATE — State Sen. Jennifer McClellan was declared the winner of Virginia’s 4th Congressional District Democratic firehouse primary early Thursday morning.
With the win, Sen. McClellan (D-Richmond) appears poised to become the first Black woman to represent the commonwealth in Congress. The Richmond-area congressional seat, left vacant after the death of Rep. Donald McEachin, leans heavily in favor of Democrats.
RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — After starting a little after 10 a.m. Wednesday, volunteers are still counting ballots to determine who will be the Democratic nominee in a special election to fill the late Rep. Donald McEachin’s seat in Congress.
Nearly 26,500 ballots were cast during Tuesday’s Democratic party-run firehouse primary for the 4th Congressional District. According to an official update at 8 p.m., only 11,056 of those ballots had been counted.
Alexsis Rodgers, chair of the 4th Congressional District Democratic Committee, said during a Wednesday press conference that party records show that it’s the “largest firehouse primary in Virginia history.”
“I can’t say enough how incredible it is for volunteers to have come together on such a tight timeline,” she said Wednesday. “And these just aren’t any volunteers, these are also party leaders and activists who are still actively grieving the loss of such an incredible leader in Congressman McEachin.”
Susan Swecker, the Democratic Party of Virginia’s chairperson, spoke about the high turnout for the primary, pointing out that roughly 15,700 ballots were cast during the 2016 state-run primary for the 4th District. In 2020, more than 56,000 people voted in the district’s Democratic primary.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) set a special election for Feb. 21, 2023, to fill McEachin’s seat, giving each party until Dec. 23 to put forward its nominee.
Four candidates sought the Democratic nomination for the 4th Congressional District race: State Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), State Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond), attorney Joseph Preston, a former Democratic state delegate, and Tavorise Marks, a civil rights advocate and entrepreneur who previously ran for the House of Delegates.
Swecker and Rodgers defended the nominating process amid claims of “voter suppression” from critics of the party-run firehouse primary, including Morrissey and Marks. Marks, and six others, filed a federal lawsuit that argues having only eight voting sites across the district and other limitations “created an unconstitutional burden” on voters.
Leon Benjamin won the Republican nomination for the special election to find McEachin’s successor. Benjamin lost to McEachin in November by more than 70,000 votes. He lost to McEachin in 2020 by almost 100,000 votes.
How ballots are being counted
Five tellers — a head teller and four tellers — started counting ballots at the Democratic Party of Virginia’s headquarters in Richmond around 10:30 a.m.
The Democratic Party of Virginia amended its “call to caucus” rules to allow more volunteers to help count the ballots. Liam Watson, interim spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said 11 tellers were counting ballots as of 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Campaigns can have up to two representatives in the ballot counting area Wednesday, according to the party.
Rodgers and a Democratic Party representatives are the only other people permitted in the ballot counting area. Electronic communication devices are not allowed in the area, the party says.
Rodgers said before the count that ballots will be counted by location, but provisional ballots won’t be counted Wednesday.
Boxes with ballots in them that were sealed overnight are opened, sorted by candidate and counted into stacks of 100, she said. The head teller then counts the stacks of 100, which are sorted by location and candidate, according to Rodgers.
“So, we’ll go location by location and then we’ll have a total,” she said before the count started. “We don’t know how long it will take, but we’re going to make sure that every vote is counted.”
Swecker and Rodgers vowed that the ballots would continue to be counted until the the nominee is determined. Watson said Wednesday that the counting will be finished “come hell or high water.”