For Winchester 1997, read Virginia 2017

The mantra “EVERY VOTE COUNTS” is an article of faith for political activists everywhere. Liberal Democrats know this more than most, having won one election and lost one in the last twenty years by a margin of two votes (Winchester 1997 and North East Fife 2017).

Now, from the state of Virginia, comes another reminder that every conversation with an undecided voter can swing an election, in a very unusual outcome. On election night last November, Republican David Yancey ‘won’ a crucial state house seat by ten votes, just preventing Democrats from overturning a 32-seat Republican majority. However, his challenger, Shelly Simonds, filed for a recount.

Held in December, the recount appeared to have Simonds winning the seat by a single vote, 11,608 to 11,607. Great news for Virginia Democrats, who thought they would now split control 50-50 of Virginia’s 100-seat lower House of Delegates.

However, their initial euphoria was short-lived. Two days later, a three-judge panel threw out Simond’s one vote win, ruling a disputed ballot should count for Yancey, the Republican, and tying the race. (Veterans of disputed ballot arguments at recounts might want to look away now – here’s a copy of the disputed ballot in question, which shows a mark against both the Democrat and Republican candidates, but then also crosses out the Democrat candidate’s name).

With the race tied, Virginia law demanded a drawing of lots to decide the winner, which occurred on January 4 (it was originally scheduled for December 27, but a court challenge by Simonds, the Democrat candidate, delayed it another week).  The drawing took place live on television, and was won by David Yancey, leaving the Republicans with a 51-49 majority in the House of Delegates by the slimmest of margins. Nevertheless, Simonds didn’t concede for another week, toying with idea of a second recount. But she finally threw in the towel on January 10, just an hour before the House reconvened for its 2018 session.

Aside from standing as a testament to the craziness of close elections, the close result should be renewed inspiration for Liberal Democrats everywhere in 2018 and beyond. Even though on this occasion the progressive candidate lost, it is a reminder that change really does happen from the grassroots up – and you never know how much every vote might decide an election.

* Alex Paul Shantz is a former member of the Liberal Democrats who now lives in Iowa, where he most recently was a field organizer for New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s presidential campaign. Originally from London, he previously worked in public policy in Washington, DC for the Atlantic Council, a foreign affairs think tank.

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4 Comments

  • I do think there is something fundamentally wrong with drawing lots when an election is tied. It is an election, not to decide which team kicks off in the FA Cup final! Fantastic piece by the way. I found it very informative!

  • I suspect that since every other vote on the ballot went to the Republicans, it’s probably fair to assume that one should have too.

    The thing is – to continue Tom Sutton’s sporting analogies – the only real alternative to drawing lots in a FPTP election is a replay, which (a) costs money, and (b) never goes down well with the electorate.

    Of course, if we had STV, this wouldn’t happen…..

  • And the morale of the story is to keep on getting the vote out until right up until the close of poll.

    I remember phoning up an elderly couple at about 9.30pm in Winchester in 97 who had been to the polling station earlier in the day but had forgotten their polling cards (which of course you don’t need) and had gone away without voting. And when I phoned decided that it was now too late to go again and vote! So we might have doubled our majority if I had phoned earlier!!!!!

  • Tom – thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the article! As to resolving an election without drawing lots… I agree with Keith. Least-worst option really.

    Keith – I agree, I think the voter’s party-line voting intent is fairly clear, and they just made a mistake with one vote.

    Michael – you are right. And now in the US with early voting in some states (up to two months before election day) and postal voting in the UK – you can never start too early either!

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