Thursday, November 09, 2006

For want of a rail ...

Those of us who think that passenger rail is nothing but boondoggle may have to reassess the politics of the issue. Today's WSJ reports that had Virginia U.S. Senate incumbent George Allen gone with the Green Party candidate's pet project, he would easily have garnered the votes to win that tight race.

That would have kept the Senate Republican, might have kept Don Rumsfeld on the job, and changed the course of history.

In Virginia Race, 'Gail for Rail'May Be a Spoiler
Candidate Says She OfferedTo Endorse Webb, Allen;

26,000 Votes Went Green

WSJ, By JUNE KRONHOLZ and AMY SCHATZ November 9, 2006; Page A1

Gail Parker may have helped decide which of two Virginia gentlemen goes to Washington, which goes home and who controls the U.S. Senate.

Two weeks ago, Ms. Parker, a 59-year-old Independent Green Party of Virginia candidate, says she offered to swing her support in the Virginia Senate race to either the Democratic or Republican candidate. In return, she wanted them to back her pet issue: high-speed rail across the traffic-clogged state.

"I was willing to endorse the candidate who would earn it the old-fashioned way," says Ms. Parker.

But neither man was much interested in her offer, she says. Now it looks like her "Gail for Rail" campaign could have been a factor in deciding which party controls the U.S. Senate.
On Tuesday, Ms. Parker collected about 26,000 votes -- which could have given either Republican Sen. George Allen or Democratic challenger Jim Webb a decisive victory.

As it is, Mr. Webb seems set to replace Mr. Allen after taking a lead of just 7,000 or so votes. With most precincts reporting, Mr. Webb led Mr. Allen with a vote of 1,173,805 to 1,166,488, and the Associated Press last night declared Mr. Webb the winner, based on its survey and analysis of votes counted and ballots remaining. A Webb victory would give Democrats control of the Senate.

Mr. Allen refused to concede yesterday and said he would wait for a full review of the vote, but it didn't seem likely that the totals could change significantly. Absentee ballots have already been counted. That leaves in doubt only the provisional ballots -- that is, those cast by voters who, for one reason or another, may not be eligible to vote.

Such votes are collected locally, so there was no way to know yesterday how many are outstanding. In the 2004 presidential election, the Virginia state elections board says, 4,000 provisional ballots were cast, and only 700 accepted -- not enough to overcome Mr. Webb's lead.

Ms. Parker acknowledged from the beginning that her campaign lacked the steam to win, but says she hoped it would work up enough noise about rail travel to prompt the two leading candidates to pledge support.

Transportation is a hot topic in Virginia, where rapid growth has left taxpayers sitting in traffic. The Census Bureau says the typical Northern Virginia commute is at least a half hour. Virginia's budget for rail transport is $23 million a year.

Since January, Ms. Parker, a retired Air Force Reserves major, says she has logged more than 40,000 miles campaigning around the state in her gray Volkswagen Jetta. She had no paid staffers and personally collected 8,000 of the 10,000 signatures that she needed to get on the ballot.

She says she raised just $1,200 in donations and according to a Federal Election Commission report, she financed much of her campaign through an $18,472 personal loan. "Maybe I should have spent more time trying to raise money," she said yesterday.

Ms. Parker, who ran unsuccessfully for the Virginia General Assembly last year, says she ran a few radio ads during her Senate bid, but mostly campaigned by greeting voters personally. She printed her pamphlets at Staples and ran the campaign from her Alexandria condo. Her campaign photo was taken last December at Glamour Shots, a mall photo studio that specializes in soft-focus, windswept portraits. Even before the last votes were counted yesterday, Ms. Parker and her Jetta had left the state to visit her daughter in Oklahoma.

"Our campaign was about faith, about family and about being fiscally conservative. I have faith we can balance the budget and also build high-speed rail in Virginia," she said in an interview, staying on message even after the campaign had ended.

The Webb campaign says it did try negotiating with Ms. Parker but came to the conclusion she wasn't seriously interested in endorsing him. "There never seemed to be any clear intent on her part to endorse," says Webb campaign spokeswoman Kristian Denny Todd. She says that Mr. Webb is in favor of finding ways to improve the state's traffic congestion and "obviously, he respects [Ms. Parker's] opinion on the matter and her passion for the issue."
Calls to Mr. Allen's campaign, press and Senate offices weren't returned.

Ms. Parker attended Mr. Webb's pre-election rally Monday in Roanoke in a subtle show of support, she says, but didn't endorse him. She bristles at suggestions that her quixotic campaign might help decide control of the Senate. "This is politics," she says. "This country is about discussing issues and informing voters."

Ralph Nader, whose own third-party candidacy in 2000 is thought by some commentators to have helped swing that race to President Bush, agrees with her.
"Everyone has an equal right to run," he says. "Obviously, Webb and Allen took a lot more votes from her than she took from them."

Ms. Parker's votes represent 1% of the state's total.

The congressional elections' most successful independent candidates were Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and Vermont's Bernie Sanders. An Illinois Green Party candidate, Rich Whitney, also turned in a respectable performance with 342,000 votes, or 10% of the state's total. Maryland Green Party candidate, Kevin Zeese, director of a national antiwar group, collected 2% of the state's vote.

Mr. Allen's chances of overturning his apparent loss seem unlikely. In Virginia, a recount "is largely about checking the math," says James Alcorn, a lawyer with the Virginia State Board of Elections.

Voters in much of the state used touch-screen voting machines, which record votes on memory cards with a backup count on an internal memory. The state's 2006 election law says that in a recount, the vote totals from the memory cards are to be looked at again to make sure they were read correctly the first time.

The memory cards in each machine record an image or "screen shot" of each ballot. But there's no provision in the law for looking at the image during a recount. And in any event, only the machine makers could do that because they have kept access to their software a trade secret.

Challenges based on the state's voting equipment also seem fairly remote. Mr. Webb's last name didn't appear on the summary page of many voting machines -- a glitch that brought howls from his campaign before the election. But at least initially, Mr. Allen seems to have faced no similar disadvantage that might be the basis for a challenge.

Ms. Parker says she plans to write thank-you notes to supporters when she returns from Oklahoma and will run for office again -- although she's not sure for what job. "Politics in Virginia is a noble pursuit," she says.