by Ben Tribbett
There has been a lot of misinformation going on about the recounts in Virginia, including some who have claimed this election was “stolen” by the Republican Party. That’s just not true – and Democrats should avoid the temptations to join the GOP in creating “fake news.”
I want to walk everyone through what has happened, and what it really means.
Let’s start with House District 28, currently held by Speaker Bill Howell. This seat – including parts of Fredericksburg and Stafford – has been a winnable area for Democrats since 2005, when Tim Kaine became the first statewide Democrat to carry it in the modern era. Since then, it has been very competitive in almost every statewide race- but Democrats never seriously contested it at the House level against an incumbent Speaker with unlimited money at his disposal.
This year, with the seat open, it was one that many of us highlighted as a potential pick up- because open seats tend to have a far smaller percentage of “cross over” voters- meaning the Democrats would have a real chance to win it if Ralph Northam did well at the top of the ticket. The House Democratic Caucus leadership (David Toscano, Rip Sullivan, Charniele Herring and others) disagreed and gave Democratic candidate Joshua Cole absolutely nothing. Click on that link and you will see not one dime went to support Cole’s candidacy from the House Caucus, or leadership.
Fast forward to election day. Ralph Northam wins by a larger margin then most predicted and obviously carries swing House districts such as the 28th in the process. Crossover voting is low (as it usually is in open seats) and suddenly the race between Josh Cole and Bob Thomas is a dead heat.
After ballots are counted and recounted, Josh Cole comes within just 82 votes of winning- a remarkable showing for a candidate not supported by his own party leadership. But there are 147 ballots cast in incorrect districts, so Democrats go to court to try to get an new election ordered. Because of how close this race was, should voters get another chance to make sure this election result is correct?
The answer is a yes — and its a no. Because if you can show there is a chance that the wrong person was elected, then yes, the best answer is a special election. But if the difference wouldn’t matter to the result, voters should have the Delegate they elected take office. For example, if 50 voters are given the wrong ballots unintentionally and the margin between the candidates is 3,000, then the person who won should obviously still be seated.
So could these 147 ballots have made the difference? Let’s take a closer look and find out.
The 147 ballots break out as follows:
61 votes were cast in 88th district that should have been in 28th
61 votes were cast in 28th district that should have been in 88th
25 were cast in 2nd district that should have been in 28th.
This is where the math gets really tricky, and the PR campaign around this has been confusing people. The 88th is a strongly GOP district, so it has been implied that those voters would likely be Republican voting in the 28th; while Fredericksburg is a very Democratic city, so the 28th district voters who were given the wrong ballot are likely Democratic voters.
Most people have read that without realizing the two arguments are absolutely counter to each other- like comparing apples and oranges.
You see, the 88th district voters in Fredericksburg that voted incorrectly in the 28th are actually very Democratic. The Democratic candidate there won in Fredericksburg by 16 points– even though he was even less funded and supported than Josh Cole. If we give break out those votes from the 88th district with the same percentages their neighbors voted, that means Cole likely carried those voters 35-26, meaning the real margin between him and Republican Thomas should be 91, not 82. That 91-vote margin is with only 86 other votes outstanding.
Cole, however, makes up margin with the 61 votes from his district that were cast in the 88th instead though. Cole won the city of Fredericksburg by 41 points over Thomas- a number that is inflated by the even larger win he got on campus at the University of Mary Washington. These voters were not on campus- but to give our best argument for Cole, we will assume these 61 voters would have voted to the same percentages as Cole got in the City as a whole. That would break them out 43-18 in his favor, eliminating 25 votes of Thomas’s margin. With our current count at a 91 vote-Thomas lead, that reduces Thomas to a 66-vote lead.
The final 25 votes were ballots cast in Stafford County in the 2nd district, where Jennifer Carroll Foy won an easy victory in her district. Again, you might think from that stat those voters are likely Democrats, but while winning a landslide district-wide, Foy actually lost her Stafford County by five points, while Cole lost his Stafford precincts by an almost identical six points. So the most likely outcome of those missing 25 votes would be 13-12 for Thomas, giving him a win overall of 67 votes.
Now, all of these numbers are giving Josh Cole the benefit of the doubt, rounding up for him, etc. But let’s go even further and say that we will add an additional 10% of the vote to him in ballots cast wrongly outside of his district- meaning any ballots wrongly allocated were massively out of line and more Democratic with all other similar ballots cast in those areas. Even in that scenario, Cole wins the 25 ballots 14-11, and wins 49-12 in the Fredericksburg ballots, a total gain of 40 votes (63-23). He is still short 42 votes, before you allocate the votes he gained from Fredericksburg from voters given his ballot that should not have had it. Move them 10% towards Republicans (to help Cole’s case as he gained from these votes being cast) and his gain is 32-29, meaning he is overall now short by 45 votes.
So in an absolutely best case scenario for Democrats, we know Bob Thomas won this election by 45 votes. In reality, he likely won by around 67 votes- with a very high confidence rate that his win fell somewhere between 57 and 77 votes.
So should we as Democrats really be fighting to block the seating of someone who is the legitimate winner of their election?
I don’t think we should. Our system of elections means we have to respect the results, and if we are unhappy we can try again the next time. If you are unhappy with a Delegate Bob Thomas, take it out on decisions made prior to election day. But Bob Thomas must be seated Wednesday, along with the winners of every other election, or we risk undermining our credibility going forward of wanting to “count every vote.”
And to Joshua Cole- thank you for running and making us all proud.