By B.J. Rudell
Whoever is certified the winner in the November 7 Virginia Delegate election between Republican incumbent David Yancey and Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds, any of their voters could accurately claim credit for casting the deciding ballot. That’s because each 94th District candidate received 11,608 votes.
Perhaps no single vote in a U.S. election has ever had a larger impact, as the result — which could be decided later this month by a coin flip or some similarly random method — will either preserve or upend Republicans’ 17-year control of the State House.
It has been said many times that “every vote counts.” But in many non-voters’ minds, “mine doesn’t” is the overriding sentiment. Civic disempowerment is rampant in our country, where voter turnout frequently trails that of most developed nations. November’s statewide Virginia balloting boasted the highest turnout in the past eight non-presidential-year elections, yet still failed to reach 50%. Nearly three million registered Virginia voters didn’t participate. Many other voter-eligible Virginians aren’t even registered.
Had one of the 94th District non-participants decided to be heard at the ballot box, she or he could have decided the election. And that should be one of this election season’s key takeaways — that any 94th District non-voter could have single-handedly altered the State House’s legislative priorities for the next two years.
This constituted a wave election, as a Simonds win would give Democrats a 16-seat pickup to force a 50–50 split and a presumed power-sharing arrangement with Republicans. However, a few votes in a few races could have kept the GOP firmly in control regardless of the Simonds-Yancey outcome. Democrats won by only 336 votes in the 68th District, 894 in the 73rd, and 389 in the 85th.
Many Americans believe we live in an evenly divided nation with hardened political allegiances, where parties have largely staked out geographic turf and identified likely supporters in today’s starkly defined Red and Blue America. But that’s an oversimplification of what is, in fact, a far more fluid electoral system — one where in any state or district, one vote can turn the tide.
We live in a country where Democrats can win statewide in Alabama and Montana, while Republicans can win statewide in Massachusetts and Maryland. Despite gerrymandering, despite incumbency advantage, despite the influence of money, slight shifts in voter sentiment can remake political landscapes. So can motivating non-voters to get off the sidelines and get in the game.
Barely half of eligible voters participate in presidential elections — and far fewer in off-year elections. About 150 million eligible voters sat out the 2014 mid-terms — or nearly two-thirds of the voting-age population.
Now imagine what would happen if merely 10% of these normally disempowered citizens decided to cast a vote in the 2018 mid-terms. And suppose the Democratic Party captured two-thirds of these 15 million new entrants. That would mean five million more Democratic votes across the country.
What’s five million votes? In the 1994 wave election, congressional Republicans won a little over four million more votes than their Democratic counterparts. That equated to a pickup of 54 House seats and eight Senate seats.
Many Democrats believe their strong showing in Virginia was a referendum on Donald Trump and overreaching congressional Republicans. Many Republicans believe GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie dragged down local Republican candidates like Yancey.
Both opinions are valid. But they don’t tell the whole story. Non-voters outnumber voters in nearly every off-year election, and any of them could have shaped Virginia history. They hold the key to our country’s political future. They can dictate our country’s direction. It starts with one chronic non-participant realizing their vote really does matter.
And it builds from there.
B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service