When every vote did matter — B.J. Rudell

B.J. Rudell
B.J. Rudell

Any of the 11,608 people who selected Shelly Simonds in Nov. 7’s Virginia Delegate election can claim credit for casting the deciding vote in her victory over Virginia Delegate David Yancey. That’s because, after Tuesday’s recount, she prevailed by only one vote.

Perhaps no single vote in a U.S. election has ever had a larger impact, as Simonds’ win in Virginia’s 94th District will end Republicans’ 17-year control of the State House, significantly altering the body’s legislative priorities for at least the next two years.

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 percent. Nearly 3 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 forced a tie with a vote for Yancey. Had two non-voting Yancey supporters shown up, Republicans would have retained House control.

This constituted a wave election, as Democrats picked up 16 House seats 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. In addition to the razor-thin 94th, Democrats won by only 336 votes in the 68th, 894 in the 73rd,, and 389 in the 85th..

Many Americans believe we live in a divided nation with hardened political allegiances, where Red and Blue America have largely staked out their geographic turf and identified their likely supporters. 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 8 percent 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 12 million new entrants. That would mean 4 million more Democratic votes across the country.

What’s four million votes? In the 1994 wave election, congressional Republicans won a little over 4 million more votes than their Democratic counterparts. That equated to a pickup of 54 House seats, and eight Senate seats.

Many Democrats believe Delegate-elect Simonds’ victory was a referendum on Donald Trump and overreaching congressional Republicans. Many Republicans believe GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie’s poor showing 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 single-handedly 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 the associate director of POLIS: Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service