The surprise victory of Democrat Shelly Simonds after a nail-biting recount has given Democrats yet another win in Virginia’s legislature, ending 17 years of Republican control.
But the question of who will be in control of the House of Delegates going forward is a bit up in the air. Simonds’s victory brought the House of Delegates to a rare 50-50 tie between the parties, a split that could change depending on the outcome of a couple of other recounts in the state. But the split raises questions about how the legislature will govern, given that Virginia has no official tie-breaking mechanism for its House of Delegates, if the results hold.
“It’s not a crisis,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center For Politics. “This happens almost every election in one of the 50 states.”
Some clues about how the state might proceed can perhaps be found by looking at how some recent partisan stalemates have been broken around the country. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), which tracks the bodies, notes more than 40 state legislatures that have dealt with even partisan splits in the last 50 years.
These splits have been resolved through a few ways:
1) State laws. At least three states have laws that help break ties, according to the NCSL. In the event of a tie in Montana and South Dakota, the leaders of the chambers are chosen from the party of the governor, for example. In Indiana, the speaker must be chosen by the party affiliated with either the governor, or the secretary of state, if the governor was not up for election.
2) Lieutenant governor’s vote. In about half of the states in the country, a lieutenant governor presides over the senate and can break ties the way a vice president can in the U.S. Senate. The Virginia Senate has considered this option during previous splits — Republicans currently have a two-vote margin — but it is not available to the state’s House of Delegates.
3) Coin toss. Not kidding. The use of coin toss helped break a legislative tie in Wyoming in 1974 and remains the preferred method to dealing with partisan gridlock, according to the NCSL.
4) Negotiation The most common way to break a legislative gridlock is through good old-fashioned dealmaking.
“Most ties have been settled when the two political parties negotiate a shared power agreement,” the NCSL says. Many states have negotiated power-sharing agreements that involve co-chairing leadership and committee positions. These include the Washington House in 1978, 1998, and 2000, the Indiana House in 1988, the Michigan House in 1992 and many others.
“The dual leaders and committee chairs alternate the times during which they preside,” the NCSL said. Some power structures alternated daily; others monthly or bimonthly.
Another way to compromise is a division of power made in the spirit of balance, giving one party a presiding officer and the other leadership of the most powerful committees, according to the NCSL. For example, in a divided house in Minnesota in 1978, “the speaker of the House was Republican, but the chairmen of the powerful rules, appropriations and tax committees were Democrats.”
The NCSL writes that deadlocked chambers have generally performed better than many expect. “Cooperation rather than confrontation seems to be key to the success of shared power in a chamber, as well as good will and the personalities of the players,” it noted.
In Virginia, the Democrats could have a slight upper hand given the near landslide victory that swept them into power, Sabato said, beginning with Gov. Ralph Northam.
“They had a wave with Northam, who deserves a lot of the credit,” he said. “Trump deserves even more credit. If the state Senate had been on the ballot, I’m convinced Democrats would have one that too. The Republicans are narrowly in charge of the Senate mainly because they weren’t on the ballot.”
Defections from one party to another are possible but not likely, Sabato said. And in a highly partisan era, compromise is going to be hard to come by, he said.
“It’s not going to be easy because of the polarization,” he said. “They’re politicians, they make do. They pursue partisan advantage when they can. And the voters spoke. They have to live with it.”
Of course, the final makeup of the legislature may yet change. Two additional recounts are taking place this week for seats won by slim margins: a Democrat in Richmond and a Republican in Fredericksburg, where Democrats are pushing for a new vote after 100 voters were given ballots for the wrong district.
There have been some famously split legislatures federally, of course. What is referred to by the Senate Historical Office as the Great Senate Deadlock of 1881 ensued after the 47th Congress convened, with 37 Republicans, 37 Democrats and two independents on the Senate. Each side was able to persuade one of the independents to join, giving the Republicans an edge with a Republican vice president. The independent who helped sway the advantage for the Republicans was awarded with a plum position as the chair of the powerful Agriculture Committee.
In recent times, the Senate found itself in a similar position in 2000, after a contentious election awarded the presidency to George W. Bush. Democrats, who had evened up the seats in the Senate and seen their candidate, Al Gore, take the popular vote, argued that the committees should reflect an even divide.
“The agreement for equal shares of committee seats — Republicans held all the chairmanships — was reached largely through a direct conversation between the two Senate leaders at the time, Mississippi Republican Trent Lott and South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle,” CNN reported.
And Republicans allowed Daschle to serve as Senate majority leader for 17 days until George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were sworn in, before handing the position over to Lott.
Gregory S. Schneider contributed to this report.