Except it could be closer. On Wednesday, a three-judge panel decided that a mismarked ballot that had originally been discarded should be awarded to Yancey. There were now 23,216 valid ballots and both Simonds and Yancey received 11,608 votes.
What does that look like in practical terms? Like this.
This was certainly not the first time that a contest had ended up tied after several thousand votes were cast. As recently as 2010, a state House race in Massachusetts resulted in a tie after a recount of 13,174 ballots.
In that case, a judge ordered a new election.
One of the closest federal races happened in New Hampshire in 1974, when Louis Dyman was determined the winner of a Senate race in the state by two votes out of more than 223,000.
That’s one of the narrowest margins — 0.0009 percent of votes cast — of any American election. It would be as if Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in 2016 by 593 of the 65.9 million votes cast nationally.
Under the assumption that he had won and would and serve for the next six years, Dyman was appointed in late 1974 to serve out the term of the state’s retiring senator. But Dyman served for only four days. After an extended back-and-forth that prompted the Senate to weigh in on which candidate it would seat, Dyman proposed a special election to settle the matter. He lost.
In 1984, a House race in Indiana ended up coming down to four votes out of more than 234,000.
Like the Dyman race, this contest ended up being adjudicated in Congress itself. Democrat Frank McCloskey was seated after a three-member panel — two Democrats, including former California congressman Leon Panetta, and one Republican — conducted a recount that showed him as the winner. The Democrat-led House voted to seat him largely along party lines, prompting a walk-out by the chamber’s Republicans.
The incident has been cited as a key moment in former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s approach to politics.
“When Panetta stole the seat, we crossed a watershed,” Gingrich said to Time in 1995, “and we never returned.”
One of the closest major races in American political history happened just over a decade ago. In 2004, Democrat Christine Gregoire defeated Republican Dino Rossi to be elected as governor of Washington.
The margin was 129 out of more than 2.8 million ballots. It’s the same fraction as a 24-minute period over the entire length of 2017.
In 1962, a gubernatorial contest in Minnesota was settled by fewer votes, but with far fewer votes cast, too.
Then, of course, there’s the granddaddy of them all, at least in terms of impact.
In 2000, George W. Bush was declared the winner in the presidential contest in Florida only after the Supreme Court halted a recount. That win meant that Bush would go on to serve as the 43rd president instead of Al Gore. It was settled by 537 votes out of nearly 6 million — a wider margin than Gregoire’s win in Washington, but still less than a hundredth of a percent of votes cast.
What sets the race in Virginia apart is that one additional vote either way would have settled it outright. (I mean, setting aside the fact that tallying the vote is often imprecise and involves rejecting improperly completed ballots and so on.) In fact, one vote did make the difference, twice: First to seemingly give Simonds the win and then to take it away.
Had Simonds won by one vote, the race would have ended up looking like a higher-stakes version of a contest in 1977 in Ann Arbor, Mich., a town widely known for coming up on the losing end of important contests.
That year, Republican Louis Belcher lost to Democrat Albert Wheeler — the city’s first black mayor — by a single vote out of about 21,000 cast.
When it came time for a recount, officials made a surprising discovery: 20 of the ballots were inadvertently cast by people who lived outside the city.
A judge initially ordered that those individuals reveal who they had voted for so that they could be removed from the tally. One of those voters, a student at a small college in the city, was detained for contempt of court after refusing to say how she had voted. Ultimately, the Michigan Supreme Court determined that the right to a secret ballot prevailed.
A new election was held the next year, and Belcher won.
The race in Virginia will be settled by lots, with the name of the winner picked at random. That solution has been derided by a number of observers as a bizarre way to settle a democratic contest. But the history of other close contests shows that, compared to the other ways it could go down, the equivalent of a coin toss is fairly painless.