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A Democrat’s One-Vote Recount Victory Just Swung the Balance of Power in Virginia

FAIRFAX, VA - NOVEMBER 07: Ralph Northam, the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, greets supporters after during an election night rally November 7, 2017 in Fairfax, Virginia. Northam defeated Republican candidate Ed Gillespie.
          (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Democratic Gov.-Elect Ralph Northam celebrates his victory on election night.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Virginia Democrats appear to have ended Republicans’ 20-year grasp on the state House of Delegates by the margin of a single vote.

In November, Democratic candidates won the state’s aggregate House vote by nine points. Thanks to gerrymandering, however, Republicans managed to snag 51 of the body’s 100 seats. At least, that’s how it looked in the days after the election, with recounts pending in four tight races. The contest between Republican David Yancey and Democrat Shelly Simonds was by far the closest, with Yancey leading by 10 votes going into Tuesday’s recount. Now, it seems that Simonds will emerge the victor in the 94th district, which is located in Newport News, with the registrar announcing that the Democrat has surged to a one-vote lead. (A recount in another of the four tight races did not alter the outcome; the other two recounts are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.)

While House Democrats promptly declared victory, this result remains unofficial until a panel of three state judges meets on Wednesday to certify the results. That panel will almost certainly affirm the registrar’s determination. Virginia conducted this election using only paper ballots, allowing for a meticulous recount. During that recount, officials fed ballots into scanning machines, and scrutinized those with ambiguous results by hand. Representatives from both parties were on site to challenge these ballots, with circuit court judges prepared to resolve any disputes. But none of the several hundred “irregular votes” that were counted on Tuesday led to a conflict. Indeed, GOP leadership in the state released a statement accepting the recount result, pending the panel’s certification.

If Simonds is indeed declared the winner, the House will be split 50–50. Democrats and Republicans will then be forced to reach a power-sharing agreement that splits authority evenly between both parties. An evenly divided House greatly increases the odds that Virginia will finally expand Medicaid, a key aim of incoming Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. (The governor-elect clarified that he still supports Medicaid expansion over the weekend after earlier suggesting otherwise.)

Moreover, a split House gives Democrats leverage over judicial selection: In Virginia, the General Assembly elects judges, so House Democrats should soon be able to elevate more progressives to the state bench. Republicans still control the state Senate by a single vote, limiting House Democrats’ ability to pass legislation. To govern the state, both parties will need to compromise, at least for the next two years.

There is still a slim chance that Democrats could seize one more seat and gain an outright majority in the House. In the 28th district, 384 voters were misassigned by a registrar who has since died, leading at least 147 voters to cast ballots in the wrong race. Republican Robert Thomas beat Democrat Joshua Cole by just 82 votes, raising the possibility that the registrar’s error threw the race. Democrats have asked a federal judge to order a new election and will argue their case at a hearing on Jan. 5. Federally mandated electoral do-overs are exceedingly rare, though, and Cole will probably lose, leaving the House to negotiate bipartisan cooperation.

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