The biggest story in the short term from this month’s off-year elections is undoubtedly Ralph Northam’s unexpected romp to victory in the Virginia governor’s race. But in the long run, an even bigger story played out in the race for the Virginia House of Delegates, the lower house of the Commonwealth’s legislature. The Democrats overcame one of the most brutal gerrymanders in the nation to come within striking distance of taking control of the House for the first time in 17 years. They still have a shot at flipping the chamber, as at least four Republican-held seats are subject to recounts.
However, it looks like at least one of those races may have a very large asterisk by it. In a race separated by less than 100 votes, almost 150 people voted in the wrong district–a result of problems that may date back several years.
One of the races due for a recount is in the 28th district, on the outer fringes of Northern Virginia. The incumbent Republican, state house speaker Bill Howell, retired after 30 years. However, it was nearly swept up in the massive Democratic wave that swept through Virginia. Republican Bob Thomas leads Democrat Joshua Cole by only 82 votes–a margin of less than one percent, well within the range for a recount.
However, the process of counting votes in that district was plagued by snafus. At least 55 absentee ballots in Stafford County didn’t arrive at the registrar’s office until the morning after the election. The registrar doesn’t think there was any reason they couldn’t have arrived in time–unless the Post Office mishandled them. More seriously, initial estimates suggested that as many as 670 voters in Fredericksburg who live in the 28th actually got ballots for the neighboring 88th district–dwarfing the actual margin in the 28th. It initially appeared that this was because a precinct was split between the two districts when it shouldn’t have been split.
Just before the close of business for the Thanksgiving weekend, WTOP in Washington learned that the actual number of affected voters was far smaller–but still potentially enough to affect the outcome. According to estimates by state election officials, at least 384 people in Stafford County and the city of Fredericksburg who should have lived in either the 28th or 88th districts were assigned to the wrong district. In many of those cases, the affected voters lived too far away from the district boundary for it to be blamed on a mapping mistake.
The estimate also found that 122 people incorrectly voted in the 28th district when they should have voted in either the 2nd or 88th districts, while 25 people incorrectly voted in the 88th when they should have voted in the 22nd. The state department of elections believes that there may be wrongly assigned voters in other parts of Virginia.
Arguments in a federal lawsuit filed to stop the final certification of the results shed more light on the matter. It turns out that the root of the problem is Charles Street in Fredericksburg. The precinct containing Charles Street should be entirely within the 28th district. But for reasons that remain unknown, Fredericksburg city registrar Juanita Pitchford assigned the odd-numbered houses along the street to the 88th–a snafu that affected 83 voters.
Unfortunately, Pitchford wasn’t able to tell us how this happened. She’s dead.
"Nearly everyone agrees: The registrar did it.
But why she moved 83 voters from one Virginia House of Delegates district to another, no one seems to know. Former Fredericksburg registrar Juanita Pitchford cannot say. She died in April."https://t.co/5RLpYGaNdp
— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) November 27, 2017
Despite this, the judge threw out the suit. He did, however, suggest that a court who had more time to look into the matter could order new elections. The House of Delegates could also order a new election, or declare one candidate the winner if Cole files a “contest” with the chamber.
On Monday, the state board of elections essentially threw up its hands. Board chairman James Alcorn conceded that a lot of people voted in the wrong district. Nonetheless, he argued that the board had no option but to certify the results–which it did. The board believes that only the courts or the legislature have the power to address this situation.
In a colossal understatement, Michael McDonald, an associate political science professor at the University of Florida and a former professor at George Mason University, said that “something really went wrong” in these two districts. He believes that whatever happened, it “was not isolated to the 2017 election.”
The stakes are, to put it mildly, astronomical. The Republicans went into the election holding a supermajority of 66 seats against 34 for the Democrats. However, in the equivalent of a double inside straight, the Democrats have flipped at least 15 seats to cut that deficit down to, at the very least, 51-49–a bare majority of one for the Republicans. If the Democrats flip one of the seats that is on its way to a recount, both parties will be tied, forcing a power-sharing arrangement. Flip just one more seat, and the Democrats take back the majority.
But the irregularities uncovered in this race are simply staggering. It cannot be stated enough–a race with a margin of 82 votes may come down to 83 people being drawn into the wrong district, and 147 people getting ballots for the wrong district. There is no credible solution short of a new election.
Moreover, it’s past time for Virginia officials to take a long, hard look at the election maps and find out how many other voters are assigned to the wrong districts. And they don’t have a lot of time to do it. Congressional elections, as well as an election for Tim Kaine’s Senate seat, are due in 2018. State senate elections are due in 2019, and the presidential election is due in 2020. When Northam is sworn in, fixing this problem should be at the top of his priority list. The integrity of our democracy demands no less.
(featured image courtesy Edward Kimmel, available under a Creative Commons BY-SA license)