Remember that bowl? We still might need it.

October 16, 2019 12:01 am

Slips of paper with the names of Virginia House of Delegates candidates Shelly Simonds (D-VA) and David Yancy (R-VA) are drawn from a bowl during a meeting of the Virginia State Board of Elections January 4, 2018 in Richmond, Virginia. The slips of paper were placed inside old film cannisters and drawn from the bowl to decide a tied race between the two candidates. Yancey’s name was pulled from the bowl and Republicans retained control of the Virginia House of Delegates. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

For a little while, the bowl was all anyone could talk about.

The blue-and-white stoneware vessel handcrafted by a Virginia Museum of Fine Arts potter got a starring turn in a memorable episode of Virginia politics a little less than two years ago when the name on the slip of paper plucked from within, concealed in a film canister, was revealed to be David Yancey, not Shelly Simonds.

Yancey, a Republican incumbent, and Simonds, his Democratic challenger for the 94th House District in Newport News, had ended their race in a tie after a recount, court challenge and some stunning legal drama.

National media descended on the Virginia Board of Elections that day for the rare spectacle of a legislative race and control of the lower chamber — a Simonds win would have resulted in a 50-50 split in the House — determined by the luck of the draw.

Many, including me, thought there surely had to be a better way to resolve an electoral tie.

Not surprisingly, Simonds, who is waging a rematch with Yancey and said it remains difficult to talk about the drawing, is one of them.

“I think there’s been a lot of inaction in Richmond on things like voting rights and making it easier for people to vote,” she said. “I think leaving an election up to a random drawing sends a terrible message.” Yancey’s campaign office did not respond to a voicemail and an email seeking comment.

And yet, with all 140 seats in the General Assembly on the ballot next month, in the (admittedly unlikely) event that one or more ends in a tie, a drawing from bowl — or vase, mug, football helmet or some other container — is how we’ll settle things again.

That’s because in the intervening two years legislation to allow voters to make the final decision, not a random drawing, has gone nowhere.

“Robert, you are correct. There haven’t been any changes made in the current law,” a spokeswoman for the Department of Elections responded when I asked if a tie would still come down to a drawing of lots.

A bill by Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, which would call for a special election to be held in the case of a tie after a “recount court finds that each party to the recount has received an equal number of votes” has been left in the Privileges and Elections Committee in each of the past two sessions. The bill wouldn’t apply to elections for governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general, offices for which the state Constitution sets out processes for resolving a tie.

“A special election does not rely on luck, but with people,” Price said in 2018 to The Virginian-Pilot, which reported that “the committee was worried about the cost, timing and staffing a second election in less than three months.”

“We have not solved concerns of voters,” Price added. “As to the cost of event… it’s rare… there is also a cost when people walk away from an election feeling like their vote doesn’t matter.”

James Alcorn, the former chairman of the State Board of Elections, said there was a lot going through his mind when he pulled the film canister containing Yancey’s name out of the bowl in front of both campaigns, party officials and the local as well as parachute press.

“We wanted to make it as transparent as possible and professional as possible,” he told me this week. “It’s really important that people trust that the process is fair and nonpartisan.”

Whether the random drawing is the best way to do things, though, is a decision for the legislature and the governor, he said.

It’s about striking a balance, said Alcorn, who was appointed to the Board of Elections by Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2014, between filling a seat quickly and allowing the voting population in a given race to weigh in.

Alcorn said that in preparation for the Simonds-Yancey drawing he researched how other states handle ties, discovering there are essentially three methods: drawing lots, requiring an elected official or political body to cast the deciding vote and conducting a runoff election.

I think we can all agree that we don’t want “an elected official or political body” making the decision.

And barring a “Ninja Warrior” skills contest or a “Billy Madison”-style academic decathlon, (which I could be persuaded to support) giving the voters another bite at the apple makes the most sense. Another reason to change the law: It currently allows losers of the lot drawing to petition for a recount, something that Simonds opted not to pursue but which, if she had, could have dragged the drama out longer. (A bill in 2018 to eliminate the possibility of an endless loop of recounts after lots are drawn passed the House but died in the Senate)

Given how unusual ties are — Alcorn said his review found a handful of examples in Virginia’s long electoral history — the costs and time arguments don’t outweigh the importance of making sure the voters, not random chance, decide who represents them here in Richmond, even if they need a second go-round to do so.

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]