The election drama continues in the Old Dominion.
On Friday evening, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia held a hearing in Lecky v. State Board of Elections, a federal suit brought by a voter in Virginia House District 28. The court ruled that the House may seat Republican Bob Thomas when the legislature convenes on Jan. 10, but it could still order a new election in the district. However, the judge overseeing the matter cautioned it would take “much, much more” evidence for him to do so. This decision virtually guarantees that the Virginia House of Delegates will have 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats at the start of the legislative session, allowing them, among other things, to choose the chamber’s next speaker.
Shortly after the Nov. 7 election resulted in a narrow win for Thomas, who beat Democrat Joshua Cole by just 73 votes following a recount, Virginia election officials determined that at least 384 registered voters were assigned to the wrong district, and at least 147 of them cast a ballot: 86 voters who should have been assigned to the 28th were given ballots for two other districts, and at least 61 voters who should have cast ballots in HD-88 (a safely Republican seat) incorrectly voted in HD-28. (If you’re wondering how such a colossal screwup came to pass, we’ll probably never know; the rogue registrar allegedly to blame for this died in April.)
While it’s impossible to know with certainty whether these errors alone misdirected enough votes to cost Cole victory against Thomas, Democrats filed a lawsuit seeking to block certification of Thomas’ win, but a federal judge refused to grant an injunction. Democrats then amended their lawsuit to seek a new election, arguing that the tainted election should be voided and that no other adequate remedy exists.
If Cole successfully forces a special election and subsequently wins, Democrats would have 50 of 100 seats and would likely force a power-sharing agreement in the House of Delegates. However, since the court has not acted to prevent the House from seating Thomas before Virginia’s General Assembly session convenes in just a few days, Republicans will still be able to pick the state House speaker at the start of the session. This will give the GOP the ability to set the agenda in the House for the next two years, even if they ultimately wind up no longer holding the majority in the future.