A Single, Historic Vote Might Flip Virginia's Entire House Of Delegates

Still don't think your vote counts?

Politicians like to tell their constituents that "every vote counts," but it's rare they have an example to point to that proves their point. On Tuesday, a historic recount gave them one such example.

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The entire Virginia House of Delegates would have been split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats after Shelly Simonds, a school board member running as a Democrat, initially defeated Republican Incumbent David Yancey by a single vote. Early Wednesday afternoon, though, a previously thrown out ballot was reinstated in the count and pushed the race to a tie: 11,608 votes each.

On Tuesday, the one-vote victory was uncontested. Simond's win would have completed a 16-seat seat swing in Virginia's House that started last month, ending Republican control of the House of Delegates that lasted 17 years.

"An extraordinary statistical fluke: Control of the Virginia House of Delegates comes down to one seat," Justin Wolfers, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, marveled on Twitter Tuesday night. "That one seat -- as the recount comes to a close -- is down to one vote."

As the final votes were counted, Yancey was holding onto a 10-vote lead. Slowly, though, that lead evaporated as local journalists tweeted out updates. By the time the verified recount was complete, Simonds had taken a one-vote lead. In the aftermath of what appeared to be a victory, Simonds was stunned. 

"I just can't believe it, but it sounds like it's pretty solid," Simonds told reporters on a conference call Tuesday, according to The New York Times. "It was a beautiful thing to see democracy in action." 

Unlike the Alabama Senate race, where challenger Roy Moore is yet to concede seven days after his defeat, there was initially little debate between Republicans and Democrats about the final vote count despite the single-vote margin of victory. But when the results went to be certified by a three-judge panel on Wednesday, a poll worker brought forward a contested ballot. According to Yancey's lawyer and aide Philip Hatchett, who did a live Periscope after the hearing, the poll worker had put the ballot aside for the judges when it was unclear what the voter's intent was.

After the three-judge panel reviewed the ballot, they determined it was intended to be a vote cast for Yancey. The ballot had votes for three Republican candidates but had a bubble filled in and crossed out next to Simonds' name, and then the bubble filled in next to Yancey's name. Jordan Pascale, a reporter from Virginia Pilot, drew a picture of what the ballot looked like and uploaded it to Twitter.

Once the panel approved the vote for Yancey, it pushed the race into a tie. The candidates will "draw lots" to determine the winner, but it's unclear what that means. Hatchett said he didn't know if it would be a coin flip or another method. He did, however, say unequivocally that this was a historic moment in Virginia's history. 

"This is the first time in the history of Virginia that an election has been changed in a recount," he told reporters during a Periscope. "There have been other elections where they ended in a draw, but this was the first time the loser changed."

Before the three-judge panel received the ballot, the Daily Press — a local Virginia paper — ran a cover page showing just how close the race had been.

Before last month's election, Republicans controlled 66 of the 100 seats in the House of Delegates. Among the Democratic victors was Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person to win a state House seat in the United States. Kathy Tran also became the first Asian American woman to win a House seat in Virginia. If the drawing of lots turns out in Simonds' favor, Democrats will have their eyes on a huge legislative goal that seemed impossible just a few weeks ago.

"We are one vote closer to expanding Medicaid and extending access to affordable health care to nearly 400,000 people," House Democratic leaders David Toscano and Charniele Herring said in a statement to NPR when it appeared Simonds had won. "Let's get this done."

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