Joe Charlet '18
Right now, control of the Virginia House of Delegates may be determined by just nineteen provisional ballots. The Virginia Department of Elections reports that in the House of Delegates’ Ninety-Fourth District, encompassing Newport News, incumbent David Yancey (R) is currently winning by just thirteen votes over Shelly Simonds (D). This .06% difference is remarkable given that, in 2015, Simonds lost to Yancey by 15.2% in a race that had almost 10,000 fewer votes than this year’s. Now, there are two major differences between the 2015 off-year election and the 2017 off-year election, one being the raging dumpster fire of endless controversy and senselessness that is the Trump presidency and the second being that 2017 included the gubernatorial and other executive statewide races in Virginia. However, I do not want to focus on why different stimuli created an uptick in voting, but rather on voting itself and why getting out the vote matters so much, even in higher turnout years.
Virginia delegate districts contain approximately 80,000 constituents. In the Ninety-Fourth District, 78.6% of these constituents are of voting age. Almost 88% of the approximately 63,000 possible voters in this district are registered. Yet, even in 2017, only 23,878 people voted, 43.1% of registered voters. Compare that to the Commonwealth as a whole where, according to the Virginian Pilot, 47% of registered voters exercised their franchise this year. That sad figure is actually a record turnout for gubernatorial elections not seen in twenty years. Similarly, the 43.1% voting rate in the Ninety-Fourth District is impressive historically. In 2015, only 27.5% of voters turned out. Thousands and thousands of possible votes were never cast at all.
Low voting rates inherently create legitimacy issues in representative government on a conceptual level. Does a representative who wins a plurality of less than half of the electorate really have a claim to be a representative of their constituents? The way election results are reported completely obscures conceptual legitimacy concerns by only focusing on percent of the turnout. This obfuscation is not due to any malevolence or negligence. Turnout and the votes cast are simply the measure for election that our system is built around. Still, it is disconcerting to know how few people are determining the outcomes in our elections, particularly in non-presidential years. In the last three presidential elections, the percentage of the total Virginia electorate that voted was in the low 70s, and the only way to know how few are voting is to look at the absolute numbers.
Practically speaking, this low level of voting does not just affect elections; it affects governance. The current governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, broke the record for most bills vetoed in Virginia history after just three years in office. This is not simply due to the fact that the General Assembly is controlled by the Republican Party, because McAuliffe only vetoed 18 of 880 bills that made it to his desk between March 2016 and March 2017, but those bills he did veto, as the Washington Post characterizes them, consisted of “cutting support for Planned Parenthood, imposing more requirements on voter registration, restricting absentee voting and expanding access to handguns.” I do not want to get into the merits of these bills, but I do want to point out that according to most of the available polling on these issues the majority of Virginians did not and continue not to support them, though slimmer majorities oppose these policies depending on the exact framing of each issue.
This brings us back to the Ninety-Fourth District. For the next four years, Virginia will again be led by a Democratic administration. Yet, whether Governor-elect Ralph Northam has to veto an absurd number of bills that the majority of Virginians do not support, or merely a normal number of bills that is more representative of the normal push-and-pull of legislative politics, may be determined by an incredibly thin margin. There are actually three other delegate races that are close enough for a state-funded recount, but the Ninety-Fourth District’s razor thin margin highlight the fact that your individual vote does not just help determine who represents you, but also the amount of concrete power all representatives of your political persuasion may have.
Last Tuesday the Democrats were able to organize effectively enough to win state-wide races by huge margins. Northam won the governor’s mansion by almost nine points. Even without the four still contested districts, the Democrats won an unprecedented shift in legislative power by winning fifteen seats outright, up to forty-eight seats after only holding thirty-three of the 100 before the election. Many of these individual votes were not the “one” vote that decided the race, but I think the framing of voting efficacy as first past-the-post efficiency is inherently ridiculous because the margin of votes itself expresses legitimacy in various ways. Nevertheless, concrete power rather than expressive support in Virginia may be decided by somewhere between one and thirty-two votes in the Ninety-Fourth District—a district, like many others, where literally tens of thousands of additional votes could have been cast but were not.
This is why getting out the vote matters. A small group of dedicated people of both parties organized get-out-the-vote (GOTV) operations in the Ninety-Fourth District, just like small groups did in every district across the Commonwealth. Even just a small amount of additional work on either side would decide the election in the ninety-fourth district, almost certainly would affected the three other recount races, and could have generated more comfortable leads for winners in all the other delegate races across the state. This year, dozens of UVa Law students were part of those small groups working for the party or independent candidate that best aligns with them and spent the past two months canvassing.
I was one of those law students. Personally, I hate canvassing. There are few things I dislike more than knocking on the doors of strangers and interrupting their lives to talk about something as personal and potentially antagonizing as politics. But this is how elections are won on the ground level; not by changing minds door-to-door, which is not supported by the data, but by actively ensuring your own supporters get out and vote. Looking back, I probably spent fifteen to twenty hours spread over the past two months going door-to-door in various neighborhoods around Charlottesville and Albemarle County. Fifteen to twenty hours over the course of two months is an unbelievably small sacrifice for someone with as flexible a schedule as a law student has. Others did way more and spent all of Election Day providing rides, directing people to their polling places, and any other manner of supportive activities. The aggregate result of all this work was a historic sweep for Democrats. If the Ninety-Fourth District had just a few more people getting out the vote on either side, the future balance of power in the Commonwealth of Virginia would be much clearer. Even just one or two people spending a single afternoon going door to door or phone banking could have gotten out enough votes to determine the Ninety-Fourth District.
There are a lot of post mortems being written about this election in Virginia and what it means for the Commonwealth and the nation as we move into congressional midterms elections in 2018. Some of those are interesting, and some of them may even turn out to be correct. But the only true take away one can glean from any election is that voting matters. You must vote. You should tell everyone you know to vote. But, if you really want to do more than just hope that an appropriate aggregate of other voters express your voting preferences, then you need to get out the vote.