On Tuesday, a state congressional race in Virginia ended up getting more attention than anybody was expecting, thanks to one of the most dramatic and unlikely outcomes in recent political memory. Following a recount, Democratic candidate Shelly Simonds had seemingly won her race against Republican incumbent David Yancey by just one vote, ending the Virginia GOP's control over the state's House of Delegates in the process. But now, control of the Virginia legislature will effectively be decided by coin toss, since that historic one-vote margin of victory was erased by a judicial ruling.
According to The Washington Post, the Yancey campaign successfully challenged a single ballot that was thrown out during the recount process, getting it added to their candidate's total to knot the race up at 11,608 votes each. This means, according to Virginia state law, that the outcome will be determined by "drawing lots" ― in other words, a 50-50 random draw, the same odds as flipping a coin.
In the case of a tie in any race in the state of Virginia ― and its probably safe to say this law hasn't gotten a lot of attention before now ― the Code of Virginia states as follows:
If two or more persons have an equal number of votes for any county, city, town, or district office, and a higher number than any other person, the electoral board shall proceed publicly to determine by lot which of the candidates shall be declared elected.
The ballot in question showed the bubbles filled in next to the names of both candidates, but with the one next to Simonds' name crossed out. It also had a bubble filled in for Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie, but that vote was also crossed out, adding an additional layer of confusion and ambiguity. The decision was made by a three-judge panel on Wednesday afternoon, according to The Virginian-Pilot.
Now, under any circumstances, this story would be getting a lot of attention. An election in which a candidate narrowly loses, then wins by just one vote in a recount, and then falls into a dead-even tie out of more than 11,000 ballots cast? It would strain credulity as an act of storytelling, but in this case it's completely real.
But this race goes far beyond even those facts in terms of its seismic impact and importance. That's because Simonds winning the seat would deadlock the Virginia House of Delegates in a 50-50 tie, which would mean no bill could pass without at least one member crossing party lines in one direction or the other. The Democrats, as NPR noted on Wednesday, have disputed the ruling, continuing to refer to Simonds as "Delegate-elect" and arguing she "should have been certified the winner."
That's incredibly significant for the people of Virginia, especially with some major policy battles looming on the horizon. Although he drew fire for appearing to back off from his adamant campaign rhetoric, incoming Democratic governor Ralph Northam has repeatedly promised to expand Medicaid, and every single vote in the state legislature is going to matter to that cause.
Simonds is ― or more accurately might be, because her fate now apparently rests on about a 50-50 chance of winning a tiebreaker and taking office ― one of the many Democratic candidates who swept into the state legislature in November, part of a so-called "blue wave" of Democratic victories.
Her bizarre, dramatic, and still-unwritten story joins other notable candidacies that have drawn national attention, such as Danica Roem, the first openly transgender lawmaker in Virginia history, Lee Carter, an avowed Democratic Socialist who defeated the Republican whip, and Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala, the first Latinas to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates.
It's unclear as of yet when the tiebreaker will take place, but even after it does, that's not necessarily the end of the dispute. To the contrary, the law states that the loser of the draw can request yet another recount, and with a margin or precisely zero votes separating the two candidates as of now, it's virtually assured that another recount would be even more heavily scrutinized than the last one.
To say this is an unexpected development would be an understatement. The ruling came a day after news of Simonds' win had caught fire in the media, and the Republicans had already congratulated her for winning the seat.. Now, however, the race quite literally hangs in the balance ― a perfect balance, of 11,608 to 11,608, with the final victor yet to be determined.