A One-Vote Victory in Virginia Lasts One Day as Judges Declare a Tie

Election workers in Hampton, Va., recounted ballots in a Virginia House of Delegates race on Tuesday, delivering a one-vote victory for the Democratic challenger. On Wednesday, judges declared the race a tie.

A day after a dramatic recount handed Democrats a single-vote victory in a Virginia House of Delegates race, the outcome abruptly shifted on Wednesday as a three-judge panel declared the race now tied.

The judges meeting in Newport News, Va., agreed to a Republican request to count a problematic ballot discarded the day before, said Philip L. Hatchett, a lawyer for David Yancey, the Republican incumbent who seemed to have lost his seat to Shelly Simonds, a Democrat. A victory by Ms. Simonds, a school board member in Newport News, would evenly split the Virginia House 50-50 and end 17 years of Republican majorities.

The decision sets up a remarkable scenario: a drawing of a name from a bowl to pick the winner of the race and, with it, the balance of power in a chamber of the state legislature. The drawing will take place on Wednesday in Richmond, the State Board of Elections announced on Thursday.

According to James Alcorn, the chairman of the election board, each candidate’s name will be put into an old 35-millimeter film canister, the canisters will be mixed together in a bowl, and one will be plucked by an elections official. Mr. Alcorn said the same process is used regularly to choose the order of names on a ballot.

The disputed ballot in that was debated in court on Wednesday showed two bubbles filled in, one for Ms. Simonds and one for Mr. Yancey, but with a fine line struck through the Simonds vote, according to a copy obtained by The Virginian-Pilot. The voter chose Republicans for governor and in other statewide races on the Nov. 7 ballot.

The judges ruled that the voter’s intent was to choose Mr. Yancey, Mr. Hatchett said. That gave each candidate 11,608 votes.

Under Virginia law, the State Board of Elections chooses the winner of a tied election “by lot,” but the law does not specify the actual method to be used. The loser of a drawing may petition for a recount, the law states.

Mr. Yancey’s extraordinary reversal of fortune came a day after a recount erased a 10-vote lead he held on Election Day. His lawyer said that was the first time in Virginia that an election result had been changed in a recount. Republicans had even congratulated Ms. Simonds and pledged to share power in bipartisan fashion. Ms. Simonds took a victory lap early Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

A lawyer for the Virginia House Democratic caucus, Marc Elias, said that the local court’s decision about the ballot was wrong and that he was assessing legal options. “The Republicans themselves had affirmed that this result was accurate yesterday before changing their minds today,” Mr. Elias said in a statement. “After conceding this seat and their majority, they are now desperately trying to claw both back.”

Ms. Simonds’s representative argued before the judges that the disputed ballot should not be counted because it was an example of an “overvote,” when multiple candidates for the same race are chosen. However, the Virginia Department of Elections, in a guide to hand-counting ballots, appears to address the issue, showing an example in which a voter marks two candidates but clarifies the intention using “an additional mark or marks that appear to indicate support.” In that case, the guide says, “the ballot shall be counted.”

Tied votes, which are extremely rare, have occasionally been broken around the country by coin tosses or the like. A City Council race in Idaho was decided by a coin toss in November, only to have the results reversed after a recount. A survey of states in 2014 by The Washington Post found that 35 had provisions for breaking ties by means of chance, though often the particulars are vague. A decade ago, Connecticut repealed its coin-toss rule in favor of deciding tied races through the Legislature or by a runoff — in other words, a do-over.

The closeness of the Virginia House race was part of a Democratic surge that flipped 15 other Republican-held House seats to Democrats, who also held onto the governor’s office. Mr. Yancey had won the House district two years ago by drubbing Ms. Simonds, 57 to 42 percent.

That their rematch was so close was seen as another example in Virginia of a rebuke to President Trump. It also was a textbook lesson, in an age of fights over access to the voting booth, that every ballot matters.

Willard Hoskins, 78, a Republican-leaning voter in the district, said he had voted for Mr. Yancey, never expecting how close the race would become. “If the mood of the people shifts, then watch out,” Mr. Hoskins said.

Trent Kays, an assistant professor of English who voted for Ms. Simonds, was elated by her narrow victory on Tuesday, but deeply frustrated by the court’s decision on Wednesday.

“They’re going to have to actually draw by lots,” Mr. Kays said, with a shade of disbelief. “That just seems kind of antiquated. It’s like medieval ages here.”

When Mr. Kays saw online a copy of the ballot in question, his discontent intensified. “My issue is, how do the judges read it and interpret it in order to make that decision?” Mr. Kays asked. Alluding to the half-punched ballots in Florida that helped send the 2000 presidential election to the Supreme Court, he said, “It’s a painful memory to realize we’re back to this again, as if the chad is hanging.”

Still, he said, he now has a real-life civics lesson to teach. “This is a story I’m going to tell students about why it is important to go vote,” Mr. Kays said. “If you don’t vote, we might be picking people by flipping coins, which is not the best way to do it.”

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