Page Higginbotham

Attorney Page Higginbotham is deciding whether to petition for a recount in his race against incumbent Orange County Commonwealth's Attorney Diana Wheeler O'Connell, who bested him by 27 votes.

As of Tuesday, incumbent Diana Wheeler O’Connell was still winning Orange County’s tight race for commonwealth’s attorney. Nine of the 18 provisional votes cast in last Tuesday’s general election were approved for inclusion in the official count, and the final tally put O’Connell 27 votes ahead of first-time candidate S. Page Higginbotham III, an Orange defense attorney. 

O’Connell received 5,551 votes to Higginbotham’s 5,524.

Commenting a couple of days after the election, O’Connell said she was “relieved” by her victory.

However, given that the difference in the number of votes the two candidates received is less than 1%, Higginbotham would be within his rights to ask for a recount—and the county would be obligated to pay for it.

As of press time on Tuesday, the totals for all county elections were final, but Harpold was waiting for the three members of the electoral board to sign off on the paperwork and thus certify the results for the Virginia Department of Elections. Harpold said Higginbotham would have 10 days after the results were certified to request a recount.

By email, Higginbotham said, “Since the numbers have changed several times in the days since the election, and the results of the race are so very close, I really don’t think it is appropriate for me to comment until the results of the election are certified, other than to say I have not conceded. Once the results of the election are certified, I will make a decision regarding whether to petition the court for a recount.”

This election season in Orange County featured two write-in campaigns. Virginia Delegate Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) launched a massive write-in effort because he failed to submit his candidacy paperwork on time. With $500,000 from an out-of-state donor and ample support from constituents in District 30, Freitas prevailed over Ann Ridgeway, his Democratic opponent and a first-time candidate, with about 58% of the total vote.

Speaking several days after the election, Ridgeway was upbeat. She said she was pleased with how well she had done and that she plans to run for delegate again in two years. She also spoke with optimism about election results allowing state Democrats to take control of both houses of the general assembly.

Freitas’ campaign manager, Joe Desilets, said Freitas declared victory on election night. Desilets said that after taking a brief vacation with his family, Freitas would be “getting ready to fight for what he believes in” in Richmond.

According to results posted on the state elections website, Ridgeway received 11,011 votes in District 30, which includes Orange, Madison and part of Culpeper County, and there were 15,126 votes cast for write-in candidates. The percentage breakdown gave Ridgeway 42.13% and the write-in opposition 57.87%.

In Orange County, Ridgeway received 4,612 votes. Freitas received 6,335 valid write-in votes out of a total of 6,581 write-ins. Harpold explained that the other 246 write-in votes didn’t go to Freitas for a variety of reasons.

In some cases, the spelling didn’t adequately convey the intent to vote for him or the ballot was cast for someone else. Further, there were some ballots where the oval for a write-in candidate was filled in but no name was written in or the voter wrote in something along the lines of “Santa” or “nobody.”

Freitas’ name prompted a spelling test for voters across the district. In Orange County, Harpold said she and the elections officers going over the write-in ballots saw “every imagination variation” of the spelling of the incumbent’s name.

Among the variations deemed acceptable were N. Freitas, Nick Frietas, Nick Frieta, Nick Fretis, Nick Frieta and even the crunchy and delicious Nick Fritos. Variations that got a thumbs-down included Fretas, Freutur, Frias and Nike.

Harpold said that in her eight years as registrar, the complexities of this election made it stand out from all the others. Due to the high number of write-in ballots, it took a week to certify the election results. Elections officers were brought in last Wednesday and Thursday to help her and her staff handle the extra workload, and those officers were each paid $130/day, just as they were on Election Day. As a result, tallying the write-in votes cost the county an extra $1,560.

“It was a big learning curve,” Harpold said of adding a major write-in tally to her office’s usual workload. She noted that a handful of observers affiliated with the Republican Party closely watched the proceedings.

In Madison County, Freitas received 3,154 valid write-in votes out of a total of 3,212 write-in votes cast in the delegate’s race. Ridgeway got 1,893 votes.

Meanwhile, in Culpeper County, 5,205 valid write-in votes went to Freitas out of 5,333 write-in votes. Ridgeway received 4,506 votes.

In Orange County’s other write-in contest, District 3 Supervisor Teel Goodwin received 1,279 votes and write-in candidate Ellen Pitera got “at least 450” of the 469 valid write-in votes, Harpold said.

The registrar added that variations of Pitera’s name that were accepted included Ellen Pietia, Ellen Petira and Ellen Patera. Among those not accepted were Pita and Pietr.

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Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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