That Virginia House of Delegates race between Republican incumbent David Yancey and Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds was supposed to be over by today, but it’s not. The race originally went to Yancey by ten votes. Then it swung to Simonds by a single vote. But after a contested ballot which had previously been thrown out was allowed back into the mix, the race was declared a tie.
The two candidates’ names were supposed to be stuffed inside of unmarked film canisters and placed in an antique bowl, with the winner being decided when one was drawn. That pointless spectacle of political theater was placed on hold yet again when Simonds announced yesterday that she was contesting the reinstated ballot, saying it shouldn’t have been brought back into play. (The ballot had the circles for both candidates filled in, but there was a single line drawn through Simond’s circle.) This update is from the NY Times.
A race that would tip control of Virginia’s House of Delegates, whose constant and nearly comic pendulums between candidates has attracted national attention, took one more twist on Tuesday when a drawing to break a tie was unexpectedly postponed.
The Virginia State Board of Elections announced it would delay a drawing of lots after receiving a letter from lawyers for the Democratic candidate, Shelly Simonds, that she was legally fighting the ruling of a recount court last week.
The election board’s one-line announcement, on Twitter, came just hours after an announcement that there would be a live video stream of the drawing, which was to be held adjacent to the State Capitol, in response to the huge interest in the race beyond Virginia.
This isn’t quite on the level of counting hanging chads in Florida 17 years ago, but it’s certainly just as contentious on the local level, not to mention being just as pointless.
Keep in mind that this is far from the first time we’ve had such a deadlocked race. After the 2014 elections, Nate Silver’s outfit provided a list of races around the country which ended in a tie. They were decided using methods which ranged from drawing names, blocks of wood or ping-pong balls from bags or hats to flipping coins. The 2000 presidential race in New Mexico came down to a handful of votes and nearly saw Al Gore and George W. Bush having to settle the matter with a single game of five card stud. (A recount later gave the race to Gore by a margin of 366 votes out of more than half a million ballots.)
While the technical validity of these exercises is very real, it’s a necessary evil which can have significant, real-world consequences while satisfying no one. In this case, control of the state legislature and the prospects for the Democratic governor’s liberal agenda hang in the balance. The “final” decision is going to affect everyone in the state on some level and the effect will be the same as if one or the other of the candidates had won in a landslide.
But who is actually going to believe in the result? This is something which our electoral system has rarely been able to come to grips with historically. The original idea of direct elections was that any large enough population, when presented with a (usually) binary choice, would break in one direction or the other by a reasonable enough margin to declare that the outcome represented the will of the majority. There were more than 23,000 votes cast in this race. The odds of an exact tie were astronomical, but it apparently happened. Even if the original count had stood, giving Yancey a ten vote margin, why should anyone in the district feel that the majority had prevailed? And now we’re looking at a situation where a court will have to step in and decide whether one smudged, improperly completed ballot will or won’t be counted. The outcome will ride in part on that decision. And if it’s counted, then we’re going to pick a name out of a bowl?
Ideally any race this close would simply be run again, but that’s an expensive proposition. And who’s to say that the results would be all that different next time? Sadly, there is no clear resolution to the situation. It’s a case of dealing with the rules and simply living with the results. But any new laws enacted by the Virginia House of Delegates over the next term are going to have an asterisk next to them in the minds of most voters no matter who wins. It’s one more case where there simply was not a clear expression of the will of the people available.