Election officials in Newport News, Va., examine ballots that a computer failed to scan during a recount for a House of Delegates race on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. Republican incumbent Del. David Yancey had won against Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds by just 10 votes in November. (AP Photo/Ben Finley)

Democrat's recount win could alter power in Virginia's House

December 20, 2017 - 1:04 pm

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — Control of the Virginia state House is still up for grabs as Republicans appear to have lost a 16-seat majority in one of the most agonizing ways possible — with a one-vote defeat in a dramatic recount election.

A Democratic challenger could score victory Wednesday by a single vote, barring any issues with the certification process. That likely would mean a rare power-sharing agreement must be brokered between Democrats and Republicans.

Shelly Simonds beat three-term incumbent Republican Del. David Yancey in the 94th District in Newport News, 11,608 to 11,607, after an hourslong recount Tuesday. It ended only after the precinct ballots were exhausted and provisional ballots were examined.

The recounted votes still must be certified by a court Wednesday. Also in that court, the Yancey campaign is challenging a single ballot before a three-judge panel. Attorneys for Yancey said the campaign believes one ballot meant for him was not counted. They cited concerns raised by a GOP election official who participated in the recount.

The official, Kenneth Mallory, wrote that the ballot had both candidates' names bubbled in for the 94th District race. He says the voter had chosen Republican candidates in every other race.

"Simonds' bubble had an additional slash mark through it," the letter said.

Simonds, a school board member, had initially appeared to lose November's election by 10 votes.

Her recount victory in this mostly blue collar district is an aftershock to the Democratic quake that shook more affluent areas in Virginia's elections. The Republicans' commanding 66-34 majority in the House plummeted to 51-49. Simonds' apparent win would make it 50-50.

The recount was one of four scheduled for House races with extremely tight margins. The 94th District had by far the slimmest vote difference and the biggest chance of flipping.

Last week, Republican Del. Tim Hugo held on to his seat in Fairfax County after a recount had little impact on his 100-plus vote lead. Two more recounts are set Wednesday and Thursday for districts in and around Richmond and in the Fredericksburg area.

"Don't tell me that every vote doesn't count," Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe told The Associated Press after Tuesday's recount. He added that Democrats could gain control of the House in case another recount flips another district.

"This is the biggest win since the 1880s," he said.

But if Democrats and Republicans end up evenly split, the parties may have to compromise just to elect a speaker and assign committee chairmanships.

In a statement Tuesday, House Republican leaders congratulated Simonds and appeared ready to compromise. The GOP has controlled the House for 17 years.

"We stand ready to establish a bipartisan framework under which the House can operate efficiently and effectively over the next two years," the statement said.

Prompted by the recount results, Democrats scheduled an election Wednesday evening to select a would-be House Speaker.

They will choose between delegates David Toscano and Ken Plum. Toscano has led House Democrats for several years, but Plum has mounted a late challenge.

He's pitching himself as the best-qualified speaker in a power-sharing environment, since he's the longest serving member of the body and helped put together the last power-sharing agreement two decades ago.

Republicans said Wednesday they have no plans to vote on their current leadership team, led by Del. Kirk Cox.

The parties reached a power-sharing agreement when Virginia's House was last evenly divided 20 years ago. But if no agreement can be reached, prolonged chaos could ensue.

Simonds said she was optimistic that lawmakers could reach compromise and get things done in Richmond despite a split chamber. She cited common ground such as increasing teacher pay, expanding maternity leave for state employees and criminal justice reform that would lead to fewer people being in prison.

The recount is the first to flip the results of a Virginia House race in at least 20 years, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

In the meantime, two more recounts are scheduled in Virginia.

The Democratic challenger leads by 336 votes in the 68th House District in and around Richmond, where ballot counting begins Wednesday.

Ballots will be recounted Thursday in the Fredericksburg area's 28th District. The Republican candidate there leads by 82 votes. But Democrats already have asked a judge to call for a new election after at least 147 ballots were found to be assigned to the wrong districts.

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Associated Press White House reporter Ken Thomas contributed to this story from Washington. Associated Press writers Sarah Rankin and Alan Suderman contributed from Richmond.

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This story has been updated to correct that the Yancey campaign says the ballot they are challenging Wednesday was not counted during the recount. The story initially said it had been counted for Simonds.

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