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Illustration by Ryan Etter

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.3, W.6-8.1

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.1, Civ.2, His.1

NCSS: Power, authority, and gover­nance; Civic ideals and practices

Enjoy this free article courtesy of Junior Scholastic, the Social Studies classroom magazine for grades 6–8.

Every Vote Really Counts

On January 4, people across Virginia watched as the results of an important state election were decided in an unusual way. With news cameras rolling, an election official reached into a bowl, pulled out a name, and announced the winner. 

The drawing was the culmination of a two-month battle in a neck-and-neck race between Republican incumbent David Yancey and Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. After a recount and a court ruling, the two candidates found themselves with 11,608 votes each. And according to Virginia law, tied elections must be settled by “lot,” or a drawing. Yancey’s name was picked. 

Pulling names out of a bowl may sound strange, but the results of the tiebreaker had serious consequences. In determining the winner of the race, more was at stake than just one seat—party control of the Virginia House was on the line.

Yancey’s win allows Republicans to maintain a narrow 51-49 majority in the House—crucial to the party after a recent wave of Democratic wins in the swing state. The nail-biter of a race is a reminder, says political analyst Quentin Kidd of Christopher Newport University in Virginia, that just one vote can determine an election’s outcome.

“I’ve never had as many conversations with people who are thankful that they voted—or are really upset that they didn’t—than I’ve had since this particular tied election,” Kidd says of the Virginia race. “It really does drive home the [idea] that every vote counts.”

On January 4, people across Virginia watched the results of an important state election. The race was decided in an unusual way. With news cameras rolling, an election official reached into a bowl. He pulled out a name and announced the winner.

The drawing was the end of a two-month battle in a neck-and-neck race between Republican incumbent David Yancey and Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds. They were running for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. After a recount and a court ruling, the two candidates found themselves with 11,608 votes each. According to Virginia law, tied elections must be settled by “lot,” or a drawing. Yancey’s name was picked.

Pulling names out of a bowl may sound strange, but the results of the tiebreaker had serious consequences. In determining the winner of the race, more was at stake than just one seat. Party control of the Virginia House was on the line.

Yancey’s win allows Republicans to keep a narrow 51-49 majority in the House. This is important to the party after a recent wave of Democratic wins in the swing state. The race is a reminder that just one vote can determine an election’s outcome, says Quentin Kidd. He is a political expert at Christopher Newport University in Virginia.

“I’ve never had as many conversations with people who are thankful that they voted—or are really upset that they didn’t—than I’ve had since this particular tied election,” Kidd says of the Virginia race. “It really does drive home the [idea] that every vote counts.”

Too Close to Call

For many Americans, Virginia’s election cliff-hanger brought back memories of the 2000 U.S. presidential election. That famous race—between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore—came down to a difference of just 537 votes in Florida and was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court. (The Court ruled in favor of Bush.)

A first count of ballots in Virginia showed that Yancey had won by 10 votes out of the more than 23,000 cast. But Simonds asked for a recount. And in the second count, she gained 11 votes—making her the winner by one ballot. 

But the next day, a three-judge panel, upon reviewing the recount, allowed an additional, contested ballot to be counted for Yancey. The ballot in question had the names filled in for both candidates but a slash mark through Simonds’s name. The race was declared dead even—and Virginia held its first election tiebreaker in decades. 

For many Americans, Virginia’s election cliff-hanger brought back memories of the 2000 U.S. presidential election. That famous race was between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. It came down to a difference of just 537 votes in Florida. The Supreme Court ultimately decided the winner. It ruled in favor of Bush.

A first count of ballots in Virginia showed that Yancey had won by 10 votes out of the more than 23,000 cast. Simonds asked for a recount. In the second count, she gained 11 votes. This made her the winner by one ballot.

But the next day, three judges reviewed the recount. They allowed one additional ballot to be counted for Yancey. The ballot in question had the names filled in for both candidates but a slash mark through Simonds’s name. The race was declared dead even. Virginia held its first election tiebreaker in decades.

Tiebreakers in History

A drawing may seem like a random way of deciding an election, but experts say it’s a fair way to break ties.

“Some people might argue that an [election] redo would make more sense, but you would end up getting people who didn’t vote the first time voting in the second race,” Kidd says. “That seems less fair than simply breaking the tie by chance.”

In fact, choosing public officials by drawing has a long history. In ancient Greece, officeholders were selected at random from a pool of candidates. And in 14th-century Italy, politicians were chosen from names drawn out of a sack. The U.S. has also had its share of tied elections—and unique ways of breaking them (see "And the Winner Is...," below).

A drawing may seem like a random way of deciding an election. Experts say it’s a fair way to break ties.

“Some people might argue that an [election] redo would make more sense, but you would end up getting people who didn’t vote the first time voting in the second race,” Kidd says. “That seems less fair than simply breaking the tie by chance.”

In fact, choosing public officials by drawing has a long history. In ancient Greece, officeholders were selected at random from a pool of candidates. And in 14th-century Italy, politicians were chosen from names drawn out of a sack. The U.S. has also had its share of tied elections and unique ways of breaking them (see "And the Winner Is...," below).

Amazing Civics Lesson

In Virginia, Simonds has conceded, but says she’ll run again in 2019.

“We’ve had an amazing civics lesson in the power of every vote,” she said after the tiebreaker.

Looking ahead, political experts hope that memories of the Virginia tiebreaker inspire more people to turn out at the polls—especially this November for the midterm elections. Currently, Republicans control both chambers of Congress. Not only will all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives be up for grabs, but also 34 U.S. Senate seats and 36 governorships. The outcome of the midterms will make it easier or harder for President Donald Trump to carry out his agenda.

“Voting is your job as a citizen,” Kidd says. “Had more people done their job [in Virginia], their candidate may have won, and this race may not have been a tie.”

In Virginia, Simonds has conceded. She says she’ll run again in 2019.

“We’ve had an amazing civics lesson in the power of every vote,” she said after the tiebreaker.

Looking ahead, political experts hope that memories of the Virginia tiebreaker inspire more people to turn out at the polls. This is especially important for the midterm elections in November. Currently, Republicans control both chambers of Congress. All 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be up for grabs. There will also be elections for 34 U.S. Senate seats and 36 governorships. The outcome of the midterms will make it easier or harder for President Donald Trump to carry out his agenda.

“Voting is your job as a citizen,” Kidd says. “Had more people done their job [in Virginia], their candidate may have won, and this race may not have been a tie.”

CORE QUESTION: What challenges might be involved in breaking a tie in an election? 

And the Winner Is . . .

Here’s how other states have settled deadlocked elections.

DRAW STRAWS
To break a tied race—4,589 votes apiece—for a seat in the Mississippi House in 2015, candidates drew straws. The Democrat chose the longer straw, making him the winner.

HIGH CARD WINS
In a tied race of 107 votes each for a Nevada county seat in 2002, candidates chose cards. Both picked jacks, but the Democrat’s spade beat his opponent’s diamond.

NAMES OUT OF A HAT
After each candidate received 1,941 votes for a Wyoming House seat in 1994, the Republican eventually won when his name was pulled from a cowboy hat.

DRAW STRAWS
To break a tied race—4,589 votes apiece—for a seat in the Mississippi House in 2015, candidates drew straws. The Democrat chose the longer straw, making him the winner.

HIGH CARD WINS
In a tied race of 107 votes each for a Nevada county seat in 2002, candidates chose cards. Both picked jacks, but the Democrat’s spade beat his opponent’s diamond.

NAMES OUT OF A HAT
After each candidate received 1,941 votes for a Wyoming House seat in 1994, the Republican eventually won when his name was pulled from a cowboy hat.

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