When Every Vote Counts, Suppression and Stay-at-Homes Count, Too

Ideas and Issues
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Ben Finley/AP/REX/Shutterstock (9298103a)
Election officials in Newport News, Va., examine ballots that a computer failed to scan during a recount for a House of Delegates race
Virginia Election Recount, Newport News, USA – 19 Dec 2017

Gulfport   A lot of attention has fallen on a single district in the Virginia legislature that sheds a bright light on the old civics motto that “every vote counts.” In this case District 94 of the Virginia House of Delegates has been a see-saw race that is still not finalized as the winner has teetered back and forth between a one-vote margin of victory and an absolute tie.

National attention has been strong because the House of Delegates, somewhat like the US Senate, currently has a 51-49 majority, Republicans to Democrats, giving the Republicans control of the body with a newly elected Democratic Governor. If the race goes to the Democrat, the bottleneck in the legislature improves the chances that Virginians will finally take advantage of the Affordable Care Act and other more progressive measures that have been stalled in the current arrangement.

There are many current themes that add spice to the drama in Virginia. The Republican incumbent in this Newport News’ district, David Yancey, has won a couple of terms with solid margins. The Democrat, Shelly Simonds, is currently a school board member trying to move up to the state level.

In another sign of Republican peril in the Age of Trump, Yancey had clobbered Simonds only two years ago at the ballot box. In 2015, he won by 57.6% polling 8140 votes to her 42.4% and 6002 votes. In 2013, he had beaten another Democratic challenger who gave him a somewhat closer race, polling a bit over 11000 votes. The current tie vote is at 11608 to 11608 with the challenged vote that pulled Yancey to even now contested in court preventing the Board of Elections from drawing lots to determine the winner. But, look at what Simonds accomplished to get to this point: she almost doubled her vote in two years! Yancey simply edged a bit more than he had polled in 2013. Republicans throughout Virginia, and likely nationally, must feel the surge of voters coming behind them now.

Newport News is indeed a city of sorts, but it’s hardly a bastion of liberalism, located at the heart of one military installation after another. The district is only 23% African-American. This is another sign of a political climate change.

But, this district election shows some other warning signs beneath the headlines. Republicans can’t be happy that the Libertarians were a spoiler for them, polling 675 votes. You can bet they’ll be talking before the next election!

Furthermore, when the lessons of “every vote counts” are taught, and we look at turnout and suppression, note that in November there were 47604 eligible voters in district 94. As close, exciting, and important as this election is, that means only about 50.2% voted, so half of district 94 voters sat it our or slept through the whole election.

I once lost an election by one vote, even if it was only to be my high school’s student council president. The apologies from friends and associates who didn’t vote were legion. I can imagine Yancey and Simonds are witnessing a lot of hand wringing as well, but the bottom line is at the heart of democratic practice. There’s no sense in shaming or apologizing when the answer is improving access and participation in elections in addition to everyone doing the work to make sure eligible voters get to the polling booths.

There are a lot of lessons for all of us in Virginia’s 94th, and there are more to come.