RICHMOND — A Virginia elections official reached into an artsy bowl, pulled out a name and named Republican David E. Yancey the winner of a House of Delegates race that could determine which political party controls the chamber.
With that race in limbo and Democrats suing over another disputed Republican win, the GOP's hold on a chamber it has dominated since 2000 remains tenuous. In a hearing Friday in federal court in Alexandria, Democrats will ask a judge to order a new election for a Fredericksburg-area House seat because nearly 150 voters were given the wrong ballots.
Thursday's dramatic and rare election lottery, carried live on CNN, drew national attention as an odd way to decide a highly consequential contest. Simonds and a crowd of about 100 state officials, journalists and politicos crowded into the West Reading Room of the Patrick Henry Building for the event. Yancey was not present, although he sent a representative.
The Democrat sat in the first row, between her husband, Paul, and her 15-year-old daughter, Georgia, holding both of their hands. "It's okay," she said softly to Georgia after State Board of Elections Chairman James Alcorn announced that Yancey had won.
She left the room for a few minutes, then returned to say she was not conceding — at least not yet. She said she was "reflecting" on whether to seek what would be the contest's second recount. She has 10 days to make the request.
"All options are on the table," she told a scrum of about 30 journalists, including a crew from HBO's "Vice News Tonight."
Yancey issued a statement praising Simonds's "great campaign" and saying he looked forward to returning to the House for a fourth term.
"This race could not have been any closer and when I return to the House of Delegates I want all residents of Newport News to know I am ready to serve as their Delegate and look forward to hearing how I can improve the lives of all," he said.
Yancey will not be seated if a recount is pending, said House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), who is in line to become speaker if Republicans control the chamber.
But even without Yancey, the GOP would enjoy a 50-49 majority on the first day, when delegates pick a speaker for the next two years.
Talking to reporters outside the House chamber just 90 minutes after the lottery, Cox was direct: "We will be in the majority on the first day."
Republicans boasted a seemingly insurmountable 66-34 majority heading into November elections. But as Democrats swept statewide offices for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, they also picked up at least 15 House seats in a blue wave widely viewed as a rebuke to President Trump.
By early afternoon, Simonds released a statement that laid out the Democratic political priorities at stake.
"When people asked me today if I felt lucky, the answer was and always will be 'yes,' " it said. "I have a wonderful life, family, career and community. I have health care. I had access to a quality education. I can see a doctor when I'm sick. Not everyone in this world, this country, and the 94th District is as lucky. There are nearly 400,000 Virginians who have been denied access to affordable health care through Medicaid expansion. I hope our lawmakers in the House of Delegates do not leave their fate to a game of chance."
One bright spot on an otherwise bleak day for Democrats came when Cox told reporters that he would support proportional representation on House committees, meaning that membership will reflect the near-parity between the parties.
Republicans had operated under those rules when they controlled the chamber by a two-thirds majority. Even with the paper-thin majority they expect to have on opening day, they could have muscled through rules allowing them to stack committees with Republicans.
But that's small comfort to Democratic voters who turned out in droves in November, said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. He blames gerrymandering for allowing Republicans to cling to power in the House even though, when tallied as a whole, Democrats won 55 percent of the House votes.
"The voters, whether they were right or wrong, decided they wanted to move in a Democratic direction," Sabato said. "That was their choice. Is it any wonder why voters get disillusioned? The Republicans can now kill anything (Gov.-elect Ralph) Northam (D) proposes."
If Simonds seeks and wins a second recount, the 100-member House would be split right down the middle, ending the GOP's 18-year hold on the lower chamber.
On Election Day, Yancey appeared to beat Simonds by 10 votes in the 94th legislative district. Then a Dec. 19 recount left Simonds ahead by a single vote, prompting House Republicans to concede.
The next day, the three-judge recount court decided that a ballot declared ineligible during the recount should be tallied for Yancey, tying the race at 11,608 votes apiece. The voter, whose identity is unknown, filled in bubbles on the paper ballot for Simonds and Yancey but also made a slanted mark across the Simonds bubble. That voter chose Republicans in other state-level offices but also made slash marks across a filled-in bubble for Republican Ed Gillespie in the gubernatorial race. Those marks were counted for Gillespie because the voter made no marks at all for the eventual winner, Northam.
The court ruled the extra mark in the delegate's race was an effort to strike out the vote for Simonds. Republicans agreed. But Democrats, contending the voter's intent was unclear, said the ballot should have been thrown out.
Simonds asked the recount court to reconsider, but the judges rejected that request on the eve of Thursday's drawing.
The other remaining contested House race is the contest to represent the 28th District in the Fredericksburg area. In that election, Democrat Joshua Cole lost to Republican Bob Thomas by 73 votes in a recount. Voters filed a federal lawsuit seeking a new election after it was determined that 147 voters were incorrectly given ballots for a different district. A hearing on that complaint is scheduled for Friday in federal court in Alexandria.
If the judge grants the request for a new election, that would prevent Thomas from being seated. Without Thomas and Yancey, the chamber would be split 49 to 49, forcing the Democrats and Republicans to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement.
The last — and perhaps only — time Virginia decided an election by random drawing was in 1971, to settle a tie in a race in Fairfax for a House seat. Back then, a blindfolded Elections Board chairman plucked the winner's name from a silver loving cup.
This time, the vessel was a modern bowl — earthy red on the inside, gray-blue with creamy swirls outside — created by Steven Glass, resident ceramicist at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It was big enough to hold a family-size salad or, in this case, the fate of the "oldest continuously lawmaking body in the New World," as the House refers to itself.
As tensions in the room mounted, a museum representative offered a few words about the "wax resist process" used to create the swirls. Then paper slips printed with the names of each contender were tucked into separate black film canisters. Clara Belle Wheeler, the board's vice chair and lone Republican, gave them a stir. Then Alcorn, the chairman, pulled out one canister. Wheeler removed the other.
Alcorn popped the lid, unfurled the paper and announced Yancey had won. Wheeler opened hers as well and displayed the paper with Simonds's name, just to show it was all on the up and up.
The rare drawing attracted onlookers such as Brian Cannon, a self-professed "election-law nerd" and executive director of OneVirginia2021, which advocates for nonpartisan redistricting. He cleared a couple inches of snow from his truck to witness the latest twist in a race that's taken more odd turns than the meandering swirls on that stoneware bowl.
He declared: "Strangest election ever."