A single vote leads to a rare tie for control of the Virginia legislature • Washington Post

by Gregory S. Schneider

The balance of power in Virginia’s legislature turned on a single vote in a recount Tuesday that flipped a seat in the House of Delegates from Republican to Democratic, leaving control of the lower chamber evenly split.

The outcome, which reverberated across Virginia, ends 17 years of GOP control of the House and forces Republicans into a rare episode of power sharing with Democrats that will refashion the political landscape in Richmond.

It was the culmination of last month’s Democratic wave that had diminished Republican power in purple Virginia.

Democrat Shelly Simonds emerged from the recount as the apparent winner in the 94th House District, seizing the seat from Republican David Yancey. A three-judge panel still must certify the results, an event scheduled for Wednesday.

Of the 23,215 votes cast in the district on Election Day, Yancey held a lead of just 10 votes going into Tuesday’s recount.

But five hours later, after a painstaking counting overseen by local elections officials and the clerk of court, Yancey’s lead narrowed — and then reversed.

The final tally: 11,608 for Simonds to 11,607 for Yancey.

“I knew it was going to be a roller-coaster ride, and the counts were going to change and votes were going to shift around. But I had faith in the system and final outcome,” said Simonds, who stayed off Twitter to avoid anxiety. “This is part of a huge wave election in Virginia where voters came out in record numbers to force a change in Virginia, and I’m really proud to be part of that change.”

Power sharing in the House of Delegates is an awkward exercise; the last such arrangement was in 1998. Committee chairs have to be negotiated, as does the person who will serve as speaker. With the parties split 50-50, there is no mechanism to break ties, and any legislation short of 51 votes does not advance.

Republicans hold a slight 21-to-19 edge in the state Senate, but with a Democratic lieutenant governor to break ties and a Democratic governor with veto power, Republicans may be forced to advance a more bipartisan agenda.

It’s a dramatic shift that caught even top Democrats by surprise. Republicans have controlled the 100-seat House since 2000; even outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), a cheerleader for his party, had thought the Republican edge was insurmountable.

But Democrats fired up by the election of Donald Trump as president turned out in big numbers on Election Day and ran as candidates in districts that hadn’t seen Democratic challengers in years.

That wave hit a new high mark with Tuesday’s recount.

“I don’t even live in the district but I am so excited, I can’t believe it,” said Susan Mariner, a Democrat who had come from Virginia Beach just to see the recount.

Even election officials who had spent the day keeping order seemed rattled by the fact that such a momentous race could be settled in such dramatic fashion.

The adage about how every vote counts is true, said Newport News Electoral Board Chairman Sean Devlin as he announced the official result. “Please make sure to stress that,” he said to the gathered reporters.

Both sides agreed that the recount went smoothly, but as the day wore on, the humdrum trickle of a vote here and a vote there began to build to high tension.

Volunteers had arrived at the Newport News city office building as early as 7:30 a.m. A conference room was outfitted with coffee, little buckets of candy and two massive ballot-scanning machines that the city rented for $15,000.

Teams of recount officials sat at four tables in the center of the room with lawyers, the news media and other onlookers kept along two walls. Each table featured two paid election officials — one selected by each party — and two volunteer observers, also one for each party.

Workers fed paper ballots into the machines one precinct at a time. Every time the machine couldn’t read a vote, it spit out the ballot. Those ballots were examined to determine whether they carried a valid vote.

Of the 23 precincts, plus absentee and provisional ballots, there were only about 200 to 250 ballots that had to be examined by hand, Devlin said. Hour by hour, as each precinct was completed, workers posted the results on a whiteboard. For much of the day, the result was either “no change” or “Simonds +1” next to one precinct after another.

Reporters and observers squinted to read the board and calculate what was happening to the total. Just when it seemed Simonds was eating away Yancey’s 10-vote margin, the Republican picked up a handful of votes to hold her off.

Attorneys for both sides, seated next to each other, were loose and joking in the morning.

But after a lunch break, the mood began to turn. Yancey stopped picking up votes — or when he did, Simonds matched him. With only three precincts left to count, Simonds had picked up 10 votes and Yancey had picked up four, preserving his lead.

Then Simonds picked up a few more. With one precinct to go, they appeared to be even.

“Anybody know what happens if it’s a tie?” one of the volunteers called out.

“It goes to the General Assembly,” one lawyer said.

In fact, in the event of a tied recount, Virginia law says the state Board of Elections chooses the winner by “determination by lot” — essentially, a coin toss.

By this time, he and the other lawyers were standing, pacing, talking in urgent tones into their cellphones. A shouting match erupted over whether the volunteer observers could talk to the election officials, and Devlin told the quarreling lawyers to quiet down or go outside.

At 3 p.m., Devlin told all the officials and observers to take their seats. The room had gone nearly silent, with all but one precinct in and Simonds showing a one-vote lead. Workers brought in a single box of absentee votes, then — with the whole room straining to see whether the whiteboard result would change — city Registrar Vicki Lewis took the paperwork into a back room to go over the totals and check the math.

Twitter was in a frenzy, but the results still weren’t final. At some point, word went around that the provisional ballots had changed nothing, and Simonds’s one-vote margin seemed to stand. The attorneys for Yancey edged outside with their phones.

By 3:20 p.m. Devlin announced the official results.

The process “appeared good,” said Stephen Klute, a volunteer for Yancey who was an official recount observer. He said he accepted the outcome. “Got to,” Klute said. “It’s the American way. The system works. So be it.”

Simonds had been waiting outside as the recount wound down and said she wasn’t going to celebrate until she had confirmation from the registrar.

She remembered how a Democrat named Jim Scott prevailed in a recount in 1991 to turn a 17-vote loss into a one-vote win — earning the nickname “Landslide Jim.”

“I may become Landslide Shelly,” she said. “As long as they call me delegate, I’m okay with it.”

Yancey, who was in Richmond at a committee hearing, can contest the results of the election with the legislature, a step that veteran lawmakers last recall happening in 1979. But GOP officials said that seems unlikely.

“We congratulate Delegate-elect Simonds and welcome her to this historic body. We also thank Delegate David Yancey for his distinguished service,” House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (Colonial Heights) and other Republican leaders said in an email.

“The responsibilities of the House of Delegates as an institution transcend party labels, and our obligations to govern this Commonwealth remain,” the GOP leaders said. “We stand ready to establish a bipartisan framework under which the House can operate efficiently and effectively over the next two years.”

The House Republican statement dropped the “Speaker-designate” title normally provided to Cox, whom Republicans chose to lead them had they kept their majority. A GOP official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Republicans weren’t quite sure what the process would be for choosing the next speaker.

With the chamber tied, House Clerk G. Paul Nardo, as the only sitting officer of the House, will preside over the chamber until a speaker is elected. The speakership will go to whoever can get to 51 votes first.

Gretchen Heal, Yancey’s campaign manager and spokeswoman, left the recount without speaking to voters and did not immediately return a text message and email seeking comment.

The final makeup of the legislature is not settled. Recounts in two additional races are taking place this week: on Wednesday in Richmond’s District 68, where the Democrat leads by 336 votes, and on Thursday in Fredericksburg’s District 28, where the Republican leads by 82 votes. Democrats are seeking a new election in the latter because more than 100 voters were mistakenly given ballots for the wrong legislative district.

The historic firsts that happened as Virginia ‘turned blue’

by Alix Bryan

As Senator Tim Kaine took the stage at the campaign party for Virginia’s newly-elected top Democrats, he commented that a new generation has taken the state from one of the reddest in the country to a blue state -- winning four out of five recent gubernatorial races, electoral votes in three consecutive Presidential elections, and the last 10 statewide elections since 2012.

In fact, he said, a streak like that hasn’t happened since 1961-1965.

"Virginia was in the wilderness years for Democrats," Kaine said. "We have rejected the division of the past, we have embraced the community of the future; that’s why we call ourselves the Commonwealth."

"We have been the biggest political turnaround in this country in the last 25 years," Kaine said. "Learn something from Virginia."

Ballots across the state reflected a new look. There were a historic number of women running; 43 Democratic women vying for seats, many held by Republican incumbents.

Some of the notable firsts that happened on the ballot this election.

Virginia elected its first out-lesbian to the state legislature when Dawn Adams barely defeated incumbent Manoli Loupassi in the 68th District, which represents Chesterfield and Henrico County, along with the City of Richmond.

While not quite a first, rather a "first in decades," Democrat Courtney Lynch beat Republican Bob Witte for the Henrico Board of Supervisors seat, putting the board in Democratic control.

In Fairfax, Democrat Kathy Tram’s win in District 42 made her the first Asian American woman elected to the Virginia General Assembly.

Closer to the Beltway, many of the notable firsts occurred in Prince William County, where four women emerged victorious.

Danica Roem became Virginia's first transgender legislator with her defeat of the LGBT community’s most outspoken opponent, Bob Marshall. Marshall held his seat in District 13 since 1991.

Two Latina women were elected to the Virginia General Assembly for the first time ever. Elizabeth Guzman won the 31st District with a 10 percent margin. Hala Ayala beat incumbent Rich Anderson in the 51st District.

Not all firsts went to women.

Voters easily put Democratic Socialist Lee Carter House of Delegates into office in District 50. Like Senator Bernie Sanders, Carter ran as a Democrat but is a self-described socialist, in a district where Hillary Clinton easily beat President Donald Trump in 2016.

The night certainly seemed to deliver a slightly more equal representation of the Commonwealth’s population to office.

Throughout Virginia, 25 women were elected to the state legislature, with District 94 still too close to call.

The highest number of women to previously serve in the Virginia House was 19 in 2013, according to political group EMILY’s list.

Long term politicians, like Henrico’s John O’Bannon, who represented the 73rd for 17 years, were ousted. Many incumbents who lost their seats, lost them to Democratic women.

Justin Fairfax, the Lieutenant Governor-elect, becomes the second African American to hold a statewide office. Former Governor Doug Wilder was the last.

Political analysts said the election battle would provide an early look at how the first 10 months of the Trump presidency have reshaped American politics and that the people of Virginia made it clear they reject Trump's "bigoted political playbook."

View complete election results here. 

Democrats Come Close to Retaking Virginia House

The Virginia State Capitol appears in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Flickr user Will Fisher

The Virginia State Capitol appears in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Flickr user Will Fisher

By Sarah Rankin, Associated Press

Democrats nearly wiped out Republicans’ overwhelming majority on Election Day in the Virginia House of Delegates, with a handful of races that will decide control of the body remaining too close to call.

Democrats picked up at least 13 of the 17 seats on Tuesday they would need to retake the chamber for the first time in two decades.

“It really is an unprecedented result we’re seeing,” House Democratic Caucus Leader David Toscano said. The last time Democrats picked up more than five seats was 1975, according to Toscano.

This election season, with all 100 seats up for grabs, saw Democrats make their most energetic push in years to gain ground against Republicans. Sixty of the seats were contested by candidates of both major parties, more than in any year for at least two decades.

The House gains were part of a stellar night for Democrats, who swept all three statewide races. Democrat Ralph Northam beat Republican Ed Gillespie in the governor’s race by nearly 9 points.

Together, Tuesday’s electoral outcomes will be seen as an overwhelming victory for those opposed to President Donald Trump and as a potential predictor for next year’s midterm election, when control of Congress and many more statehouses will be up for grabs.

In the run-up to Tuesday’s balloting, Democrats said they were confident, but many analysts had expected them to pick up no more than a handful of seats.

Republicans maintained during the campaign that they would retain their majority. Their years in power helped them build up a significant cash advantage, and they argued that voters in local races care about local issues — not what’s going on in Washington.

“Obviously, tonight was a difficult night and the outcome is not what anyone expected,” Matt Moran, spokesman for the House Republican Caucus, said in a statement Tuesday night.

The shift in power could have far reaching policy and political implications. It will change the makeup of committees, and Republicans may no longer be able to block Medicaid expansion. Democrats in Virginia also will have greater leverage when drawing new congressional and legislative boundaries during the next redistricting.

“I told Ralph I am jealous” of the legislature he will get to work with, said Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who fought the General Assembly unsuccessfully on Medicaid expansion for four years.

It wasn’t immediately clear how long it would be before the full results are known.

Seven seats were too close to call early Wednesday. Many of those could be subject to recounts if candidates choose to request them.

In one race, only 12 votes separated Republican Del. David Yancey and Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds.

Among the Democrats’ influx of candidates this year were a record 43 women, many of whom said they were inspired by Hillary Clinton’s defeat to jump into politics for the first time. At least nine of the new seats will be filled by women.

Among those will be Danica Roem, who is transgender. A former journalist, she unseated Bob Marshall, one of the chamber’s longest-serving and most conservative members. Earlier this year, Marshall sponsored a bill that would have limited the bathrooms transgender people can use.

Roem will be Virginia’s first openly transgender lawmaker. She will also make history as the first openly transgender person elected and seated in a state legislature, according to the Victory Fund, a political action committee that works to get openly LGBTQ people elected.

Several other Democratic women also made history Tuesday night: Hala Ayala and Elizabeth Guzman — who both ousted Republican incumbents — will be the chamber’s first Latina members, and Kathy Tran will be its first female Asian-American member.

In the Blacksburg area, Chris Hurst, a former Virginia news anchor whose journalist girlfriend was fatally shot during a live broadcast in 2015, defeated a Republican incumbent. After the shooting, Hurst became the public face of the grieving Roanoke station.