Shelly Simonds and the Tale of the Virginia “Canister”

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You may recall the extremely close election in Virginia in November 2017 that resulted in a loss, a win, a tie, and a resolution by “canister.” Shelly Simonds, Democratic candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates District 94, at first narrowly lost to her opponent, Republican David Yancey, by only 13 votes (out of more than 23,000 cast). When Yancey was declared the winner, Simonds asked for a recount, noting that there were 50 provisional ballots that still needed to be counted. Yancey was declared the winner (by only 10 votes) on November 20, resulting in Simonds’ official recount request to the Newport News Circuit Court.

The recount showed Simonds actually winning – by one vote, 11,608 to 11,607. She declared victory on December 19. The next day, however, a three-judge panel declared a tie in the race: “the judges agreed to count a vote for Yancey from a ballot that recount officials decided not to count, neither for Simonds nor for incumbent Del. David Yancey. The voter had filled in bubbles for both candidates but put a slash through Simonds’ name. Republicans argued that the voter had intended to pick Yancey because he or she had voted for the Republican candidates in other races on the ballot.”

The reason this race was so significant is that Simonds’ apparent win (short-lived, of course) “would have given Democrats enough seats — 50 — to challenge Republicans for control of the chamber.” As might be expected, Republicans did not like the looks of that.

As Daily Kos writer Carolyn Fiddler then pointed out, “The Democrats’ challenge to the recount panel’s decision made three strong arguments. . . The judges dismissed them all.” One of the major arguments was that counting the ballot in question went completely against the Election Board’s own rules:

“(8) Any ballot that has any mark, as above, in the target area or candidate area for one candidate, and on which other marks in the target areas or candidate areas for any other candidates have been partially erased, scratched out, or otherwise obliterated, shall be counted as a vote for the candidate for which the mark was not erased, scratched out, or otherwise obliterated, provided no other candidate is similarly marked.”

So, enter another quirk of the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia when it comes to elections. Fiddler wrote on January 3, 2018: “The outcome of a key Virginia House of Delegates election was just determined by the drawing of lots (specifically, in this case, via old-school film canisters in a stoneware bowl), and Republican Del. David Yancey won the race for the 94th District. This drawing should never have happened, however. Democrat Shelly Simonds secured a one-vote win in the recount on Dec. 19, but shady Republican antics resulted in the three-judge recount panel counting an additional vote for Yancey the following day, yielding a tie. Today, the tie was broken, in accordance with state law, by the drawing of lots.” Specifically, “Each candidate’s name was written on strips of paper, inserted into film canisters and mixed together in the handmade bowl, made by the potter-in-residence at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Steven Glass.” Thus Republicans were able to cling to their one-seat House majority, 51-49.

As if it were not bad enough that a vitally important House race was determined by lots, a very questionable ballot, and a State Board of Elections that did not follow its own guidelines, it was also revealed that black disenfranchisement almost certainly played a critical role. According to a Washington Post report from May 2018, “a review of voter registration records and district maps found that 26 voters ‘in a predominately African American precinct that heavily favored Democrats in the fall’ in House District 94 instead were mistakenly given (and cast) ballots in a neighboring district.” Fiddler concludes in a May 17, 2018, article in the Daily Kos, “These votes would almost certainly have given Democrat Shelly Simonds a narrow but undeniable victory, and it would have ended the Republican majority in the Virginia House.”

Shelly Simonds is not pursuing legal action in this matter but she is running again for House District 94 in 2019. She has the right, it seems, to feel that the seat really is hers.

So, what are the takeaways here for all of us?

  • Every single vote counts. If you are using a paper ballot, make sure your ballot is readable and countable!
  • We must fight against disenfranchisement and suppression of eligible voters every step of the way. There is little that will make Americans more cynical about our democratic systems and less likely to exercise their right to vote than having a system that seems inherently unfair and unworkable.
  • We must fight for voting procedures that enable all eligible voters to exercise their rights. We have discussed this earlier, especially with regard to the steps various states are taking to ensure voter enfranchisement and the methods used in Europe and elsewhere that result in much higher voter turnout than in the US.
  • We must continue to be vigilant about forces, including other nations, which try to interfere in our election process and cripple our democratic institutions (read: Russia).
  • “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Shelly Simonds is certainly heeding this old proverb, and we applaud her!