By Ben Williams
Who said one vote doesn’t matter? Certainly no one in Virginia.
Following the commonwealth’s 2017 General Assembly Elections, the balance of power within the House of Delegates was left up in the air—and stayed up in the air until today. Today, the House of Delegates continues to be a majority-Republican chamber, based on the results of breaking a tie vote in the election for one seat.
The result is what matters, of course, but the story along the way has had many fascinating twists and turns, and may not be over.
Before today, the House of Delegates had 50 Republicans, 49 Democrats, and the undecided seat in the 94th District. Incumbent Representative David Yancey, a Republican, and his challenger, Shelly Simonds, a Democrat, received an equal number of votes in the November election (after counting and recounting). Cutting to the chase, in today’s drawing of lots, if Simonds drew the winning lot, the chamber would’ve been tied, 50 to 50. Instead, Yancey’s name was drawn from a bowl, and thereby winning the seat and maintaining the Republicans’ 18-year control of this most-watched legislative chamber in the nation.
To learn how states deal with tie votes, see NCSL’s webpage, Resolving Tied Elections for Legislative Offices.
To learn more about Virginia’s experience with ties, recounts, contested elections and more, here’s the timeline, with legal challenges still pending:
Nov. 7: Virginia held its normally scheduled legislative and gubernatorial election. It’s one of a handful of states that uses off-year elections. The big news was that Democrats won many seats, enough to put control of the chamber in doubt. Three seats were too close to call.
Nov. 13: The race was certified for Yancey by a 10-vote margin, at which point the Democrat, Simonds, asked for a recount. Under Virginia state law, a candidate can request a recount to be paid for by the state if the margin is under 1 percent.
Dec. 19: The recount, supervised by a three-judge panel, was finalized: Simonds won the election. By one vote. At this point, it seemed that the House of Delegates would be under Democratic control.
Dec. 20, 9 a.m.: The three-judge panel reconvened to certify the results of the recount. During this meeting, an attorney for Yancey recalled that one ballot had been excluded the previous day, and asked that it be included. It had both candidates’ ovals marked, and then a line was drawn through Simonds’ oval. See the ballot here.
Dec. 20, 2 p.m.: The three-judge panel decided to count that ballot. The result: a tie vote, meaning control of the chamber continued undecided.
Dec. 26: Simonds petitioned the three-judge panel, asking for the ballot to be excluded, arguing that the ballot had been reconsidered more times than were permitted by Virginia’s recount law. The state board of elections announced that it would delay the drawing of lots, pending the result of the challenge.
Dec. 29: The Virginia Board of Elections announced it would draw lots to determine the winner in the 94th District, barring any new court rulings, on Jan. 4 at 11am.
Jan. 3: The three-judge panel declined to reconsider its inclusion of the contested ballot for Yancey, clearing the way for the drawing of lots.
Jan. 4: Yancey held onto his seat after winning the drawing of lots at the state board of elections. Simonds indicated she would not concede the race and would consider “all legal options.”
Today’s drawing of lots may not be the end of the saga. Simonds has the right to petition for a second recount. Such a recount, if granted, likely would not be completed by Jan. 10. Thus, it seems likely that even if the General Assembly is ultimately tied 50-50, Republicans will control the speakership and the committee chairs on opening day.
Ben Williams is a legal clerk with NCSL’s elections program.