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Drama Plays Out In One Race Of Virginia House Of Delegates

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the Virginia House of Delegates, some dramatic reversals are proving true the old maxim, every vote counts. Yesterday, it seemed that control of the chamber rested on a single vote. A recount gave the Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds a one-vote lead over Republican incumbent David Yancey. The Republicans challenged one ballot. And this afternoon, three judges agreed. Now the tally is an exact tie - 11,608 to 11,608.

The outcome of this race could determine which party controls the Virginia House of Delegates, and here to talk with us about this is Rachel Bitecofer, who teaches political science at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., which is in the 94th District. Welcome to the program.

RACHEL BITECOFER: Well, thank you so much for having me. What a day.

SHAPIRO: I know you tell your students that political involvement is important and every vote counts, but boy, have you ever seen anything like this?

BITECOFER: Yeah, this is really something. And for - both of these candidates are very familiar with my classes at CNU. They both come in and do activities on campus and talk to my students about running for office. So now I'll forever have a great lesson plan on why it is that participation in these state and local elections is so critical (laughter).

SHAPIRO: OK, so at this point, it seems that this particular race is an exact tie. If the Democrat were in the lead, then the House of Delegates would be an exact tie. What happens?

BITECOFER: Yeah, so this has been a roller coaster ride already coming from the original election on the 7th that left these two candidates at a 10-vote margin. Yesterday's recount produced a one-vote victory. Shelly Simonds held a victory party last night, and it was reported that she was the official winner and would be certified this morning.

And then suddenly word leaked out that the Yancey campaign had a ballot that they were going to contest that had been excluded in the recount yesterday. And all day, it was litigated in a courtroom here in Newport News. The judges eventually agreed the ballot should be included. And so now we're at a tie. And this roller coaster's only now starting to get going. It's going to get crazier from here actually.

SHAPIRO: Because at this point there are 20,000 ballots, could any one of them be challenged by either party?

BITECOFER: Yeah. So I mean, I don't know what the - Shelly Simonds' strategy will be going forward from here. If it was me, I would obviously be trying to get another recount done under the idea that if this one ballot was mischaracterized, perhaps there are others.

And in short of that, under Virginia law, what will happen from here is the candidates will go to the State Board of Election. There will be in the code basically a drawing of lots. In practical terms, that means either a coin toss or rock, paper, scissors, or something will determine a winner. And then under the code, the loser will have a ability to challenge for another recount.

SHAPIRO: And this all has to be resolved by January - right? - when the House of Delegates is scheduled to be seated.

BITECOFER: That's correct. I mean, there's no law that says it needs to be settled. But if it's not settled, then, you know, the Republicans would go into the legislative session with one delegate short, and so would the Democrats, right? So there's going to be a vested interest to resolve this. You know, reason why this has captured so much national attention is it's not just one vote to decide the district. It's this one vote decides control of the state, you know, House of Delegates here.

SHAPIRO: And there are two other districts that are also in the middle of recounts.

BITECOFER: That's true. In one of these districts, they printed the wrong ballot for a part of the district. So it had the wrong House of Delegate candidates listed. And that is going to be a slower litigation process. Ultimately, will that election be certified? Really, there's not much precedent for that here, so we really don't know where that's going to go.

SHAPIRO: Rachel Bitecofer is assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. She's the author of "The Unprecedented 2016 Presidential Election." And she is at the center of a local political race that has become national news. Thanks so much for joining us.

BITECOFER: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF J-WALK'S "FRENCH LETTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.