It came down to the toss of a coin.
You Might Also Like
Explore This IssueSeptember 2020
Also By This Author
David Yancey represented the Newport News district in the Virginia House of Delegates beginning in 2011. In 2017, he had a challenger. Shelly Simonds, a member of the local school board, decided to run for the privilege of representing the 94th District. The final tally: 11,608 votes for Simonds, and 11,607 votes for Yancey.1
Ms. Simonds had won. By one vote.
The outcome was not assured by any means. The original vote count was so close, it triggered a recount, which led to the conclusion that Ms. Simonds had won by one vote. According to the original vote count, it was actually Mr. Yancey who had won. By 10 votes.
That’s not where the story ends.
One vote had initially been discarded. The voter had filled in bubbles for both Mr. Yancey and Ms. Simonds, but then put a slash through the bubble for Ms. Simonds. The ballot was brought to a three-judge panel, which determined that the ballot demonstrated clear evidence of intent. By examining how the remainder of the ballot had been completed, the judges had decided that the voter had clearly demonstrated his (or her) desire to vote for Mr. Yancey. Therefore, the vote, which Ms. Simonds had initially lost by 10 votes, and then won by one vote, was actually a tie.2
Hence, the coin toss.
It wasn’t actually a physical coin, per se, that decided the outcome of this election. It was a slip of paper, stuffed into a film canister, drawn randomly out of a bowl. Under Virginia law, the Commonwealth Board of Elections had to break the tie vote through “determination by lot.”3 The vote had to be decided, literally, by drawing a small object or a piece of paper out of a container.
Thus, the representative for the 94th district of the Commonwealth of Virginia was determined.
Kevin Entze could commiserate. Mr. Entze was a police officer in Washington state who ran to be his party’s candidate for the 2002 state house race for the 26th district. More than 11,700 ballots were cast. Mr. Entze lost. By one vote. Worse, he later found out that a colleague had forgotten to mail in his ballot. “He left his ballot on the kitchen counter, and it never got sent out,” Mr. Entze said.4
Close elections are more common than you would think. There’s actually a Wikipedia page, List of Close Election Results, that documents multiple state and local elections decided by only a handful of votes.5 It would also be difficult to forget that George W. Bush was elected president of the United States by a margin of only 537 votes, cast in the state of Florida.6 All of these examples demonstrate the truth to the mantra: Every vote counts.
How to Vote
In the upcoming presidential election, many of us will be reluctant to physically go to a polling place. Fortunately, at least 76% of Americans will be able to cast a ballot by mail. Unfortunately, in six states—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, New York and Connecticut—concern over exposure to SARS-CoV-2, by itself, is not adequate to obtain an absentee ballot. Residents of those states will need another excuse, such as military deployment or illness, to qualify. Otherwise, they will need to show up in person to cast a vote.7
Residents of all other states (and Washington, D.C.) may cast an absentee ballot. That doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t need to do their homework. Some of these states will automatically mail a ballot to every eligible voter, while others will mail eligible voters only an application for a ballot. The remainder of the states will do nothing unless you first reach out to them.8 There are multiple online resources you can use to ensure you are registered to vote and will receive an absentee ballot in the mail.9
Just receiving your ballot is not enough. In the 2016 election, of the 33.3 million ballots cast by mail, 65,000 were rejected.10 What can you do to make sure your mail-in vote counts?
A slip of paper stuffed into a film canister & then drawn randomly from a bowl decided the outcome of this election.
First, read the instructions. Failure to complete the ballot in full and failure to sign the ballot are two of the reasons your vote may be invalidated.
Second, act early. You may be wondering why you are reading about how to vote so early in the year. But that’s exactly the point: It isn’t too early. The Chicago adage about elections is to “vote early, vote often.” At least part of that advice is applicable here. Each state has its own rules about what makes a mail-in ballot valid. Some states require only that the ballot is postmarked by Election Day, but over half the states require the ballot be received by Election Day. A timely postmark is not enough.11
That is harder than it sounds. The U.S. Postal Service’s own statistics indicate that 20% of First Class mail fails to reach its destination after five days.12 The vast majority of mail will eventually be delivered successfully, but for a ballot, eventually may not be good enough. Mailing in your ballot early, weeks before Election Day, provides you with the greatest assurance your vote will be counted.
For those of you concerned about the security of voting by mail, don’t be. During the week before Christmas, the U.S. Postal Service will deliver 2.5 billion pieces of First-Class mail. It can handle your ballot. Also, mail-in ballot fraud is uncommon, difficult to commit without getting caught and almost entirely unlikely to affect the outcome of any given election. Because mail-in ballots automatically create a paper trail, these elections are exceptionally easy to audit, should questions arise.13
Oregon’s experience is telling. In 2000, Oregon became the first state in the Union to conduct a presidential election entirely with mail-in ballots. That year, 79% of all eligible voters cast a vote.14 Since then, Oregon has established vote-by-mail as the single form of voting for all elections in the state.
Regarding the potential for fraud, Phil Keisling, a former Oregon secretary of state, notes, “I’ve heard the same amped-up conspiracy theories for 30 years. There’s never been any evidence of significant attempts, much less success.”15 He further notes that vote-by-mail has been wildly popular, because it gives voters the opportunity to research issues with ballot in hand. If you have ever found yourself rapidly reading through some initiative or referendum while standing at a voting booth, you can immediately appreciate the appeal of a more stately, less frenetic approach.
You may be wondering why you are reading about how to vote so early in the year. But that’s exactly the point: It isn’t too early.
Actually, Americans have been voting by mail since the American Revolution. Absentee ballots did not become widespread in the military, however, until the Civil War. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln insisted on allowing 150,000 Union soldiers to cast a vote by mail.16 This right was codified by the 1986 Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, which allows expatriate U.S. citizens and members of the military to vote absentee in elections for federal office.17 Ironically, a soldier in Afghanistan may have an easier time casting a ballot in the next election than many of your neighbors.
There is an apocryphal story about two economists meeting at a polling place. “Why are you here?” the first economist asks the second.
“Because my husband forced me to come. Why are you here?” the second economist asks.
“Because of my wife,” the first economist says, nodding in commiseration.
“Let’s not tell anyone we saw each other here,” says the second economist. The first economist nods in agreement, and they walk off in different directions.18
I am told that if you were an economist, you would be rolling in the aisles. The punchline is that the economists were embarrassed to be seen casting a vote because, statistically, it is a waste of time. Close elections definitely occur, but more frequently than not, a single ballot will not change the outcome of the vote. So why bother voting at all?
We often think of elections as a way of holding elected officials accountable for their actions. That said, elections often reflect issues that have nothing to do with the person being elected. Additional issues at play include the following:19
- Oversensitivity: Elections turnout is heavily influenced by issues that have no direct connection to the candidates, such as the weather or a pandemic.
- Limited agency: Who you vote for has a lot to do with social pressures, even when no one will know how you cast your vote. One result is party allegiances that can be difficult to shake.
- Limited cognition: Who you vote for has to do with your gut instinct. Because the issues examined in any given election can be overwhelming, we use cognitive shortcuts when determining who to support. Campaign slogans are a good example of this; no one really thinks foreign policy will be constructed around a five-word phrase on a bumper sticker, but we accept this fiction to help get our bearings on the issues.
Elections may also have limited value in expressing the will of the people. A given candidate may receive a given vote for myriad reasons, and although many of these reasons will overlap, many will not. Elections may represent a zeitgeist, but taking away specific mandates from any particular election may be challenging.
Interestingly, many people vote, specifically, because they want to be seen voting. Some studies indicate that although mail-in ballots make voting easier, they don’t always lead to an increase in the total number of votes cast.20 Some people vote because they appreciate the ritual, and possibly as important, they want their neighbors to witness them in this act of civic duty.
I can appreciate the truth to this observation. When I cast my vote, I frequently take the “I Voted” sticker I receive, and attach it to the front of my laptop, so everyone can see that I am a good citizen. On Election Day, a common topic of conversation is the contortions we go through to find time to cast a vote. We are not shy about our participation; we want people to know, and the lack of a public spectacle, perhaps, makes the entire act less appealing.
The main reason you should cast your vote, however, is to create a citizenship habit. Knowing we plan to vote encourages us to pay more attention, to have an opinion, to become involved. Voting is the gateway to increased civic participation. Also, voting—even in elections in which the conclusion seems foregone—is how we communicate to our elected officials that we are paying attention.
Politicians of all stripes pander to the extremes because they know those are the citizens most likely to cast a vote. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney recently commented that the people who are eager to respond to pollsters are often more reluctant to drive to the polls.21 This expectation needs to change.
The ACR’s Government Affairs Committee has been trying to communicate this message to us for years. Physicians are notoriously bad at standing up for our own interests. The unsung hero of the ACR is RheumPAC, “the ACR’s nonpartisan political action committee (PAC) that works to elect and support candidates who are pro-rheumatology. It is the only PAC dedicated to the interests of the rheumatology profession.” RheumPAC makes sure we have a seat at the table and that our concerns are heard. And it does this while receiving support from only a small percentage of all U.S. members. Imagine how much good RheumPAC could do, and how much influence rheumatology might have, if we could push that percentage up.
Also, your vote does make a difference, even if that difference is not immediately obvious. In the case of the Virginia House of Delegates, the decision of the three-judge panel not only affected the results of a single election, it had an impact on the legislative branch of the Commonwealth of Virginia. When Mr. Yancey was deemed to have won his election—by dint of a film canister—he provided his party with the majority it needed to retain control over the state legislature. That is, until 2019, when, energized by the coin-toss election, Ms. Simonds’ supporters carried her, and her party, to a landslide victory.
Your vote matters. Register. Vote.
Philip Seo, MD, MHS, is an associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore. He is director of both the Johns Hopkins Vasculitis Center and the Johns Hopkins Rheumatology Fellowship Program.
- Gabriel T. In Virginia, a 11,608-to-11,607 lesson in the power of a single vote. The New York Times. 2017 Dec 19.
- Moomaw G. Virginia elections board to pick random winner in tied House race. The Daily Progress. 2017 Dec 20.
- Determination by lot in case of tie. Code of Virginia. Title 24.2. Elections. Chapter 6. Article 4. §24.2–674.
- Barker JM. One vote decides it in the 26th district. Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 2002 Oct 1.
- List of close election results. Wikipedia.
- Glass A. Bush declared electoral victor over Gore, Dec. 12, 2000. Politico. 2018 Dec 12.
- Rabinowitz K, Mayes BR. At least 76% of American voters can cast ballots by mail in the fall. The Washington Post. 2020 Aug 11.
- Find my state or local elections office website.
- Vote save America.
- Chang A. NPR analysis: Thousands of mail-in ballots rejected for arriving too late. NPR. 2020 Jul 13.
- Absentee ballot deadlines. Vote.org.
- Rein L. It’s not just you: Letters really are taking longer to get delivered. The Washington Post. 2015 Apr 27.
- Hill C, Grumbach J, Bonica A, Jefferson H. We should never have to vote in person again. The New York Times. 2020 May 4.
- Bradbury B. Oregon vote-by-mail. State of Oregon. (n.d.).
- Camhi T. How Oregon became the first state to vote by mail in a presidential election. OPB. 2020 Jun 19.
- Seitz-Wald A. How do you know voting by mail works? The U.S. military’s done it since the Civil War. NBC News. 2020 Apr 19.
- The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (as modified by the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2005). U.S. Department of Justice; Civil Rights Division; Voting Section. 1987 Dec 31.
- Dubner SJ, Levitt SD. Why vote? The New York Times. 2005 Nov 5.
- Victor J. What good are elections, anyway? Vox. 2018 Oct 30.
- Kousser T, Mullin M. Does voting by mail increase participation? Using matching to analyze a natural experiment. Soc Pol Methodol. 2007;15(4):428–445.
- Winslow D. (2020 Jul 23). Today @MittRomney said Trump would be re-elected. ‘I think the voters that are most animated in opposition to the president tend not to come out to vote and that’s young people & the minorities. They’re active in polls, but not necessarily active at getting out to the polls.’.