Clerical Error Puts Virginia’s House of Delegates in Limbo

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The Virginia Board of Elections has now certified some controversial results, but recounts and intervention by the courts could still lie ahead. Photo: Joe Mahoney/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP

On November 7, Democrats made surprisingly large gains in state legislative elections in Virginia, coming close to control of the lower house (the House of Delegates), which Republicans previously controlled by a massive 66-34 margin.

Most of us non-Virginians tuned out at that point. But the results of some very close races that will determine control of the House of Delegates have dragged on. According to the certified results from the State Board of Elections, Republicans have narrowly held on to the chamber by a 51-49 margin. But recounts are pending in two districts carried by Republicans — one in Newport News where the margin was just ten votes. And then court intervention is entirely possible in another close race won by a Republican, where it is now clear election officials in Fredericksburg misdirected a significant number of voters to the wrong district, as the Washington Post explains:

At a meeting last week, state Elections Commissioner Edgardo Cortés said that former registrar Juanita Pitchford erroneously assigned 83 voters from the 28th House District to the 88th. After further investigation, he said the state had discovered a total of 384 misassigned voters, including some in the neighboring 2nd House District. Of those, 147 of the misassigned voters cast ballots.

Unfortunately, the registrar who made this mistake died in April, so there’s no telling how or why it happened. But it matters, since the apparent Republican winner in the 28th district had only a 82-vote margin — and a recount there could change those numbers as well.

Democrats tried to get a federal judge to stop the certification of the election in the 28th district, but he agreed with the Election Board’s own conclusion that they did not have the power to provide the obvious remedy, which is a new election. The courts do have that power, however, and Democrats may go back to the same judge and ask for that to happen.

So the shape of the Virginia House of Delegates, along with its leadership and committee assignments, remains in limbo for the time being. If the recounts shift one seat from Republicans to Democrats, the chamber would be split 50-50 and some sort of power-sharing arrangement would have to be devised. A two-seat shift would put Democrats in charge. And in the event of a new election in the 28th, control may or may not remain in doubt for a considerably longer period of time.

Either way, Republicans, who also have a small (21-19) margin of control in the Virginia Senate, have lost a lot of the leverage they had over Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe. New Governor Ralph Northam could be in a better position to enact key policies like a Medicaid expansion (assuming the option is not blocked by the congressional GOP and Donald Trump). And Republicans could be vulnerable again in 2019, when the entire state Senate is up for reelection. It’s a new political climate in the Old Dominion.

Clerical Error Puts Virginia’s House of Delegates in Limbo