Rock Paper Scissors for Who Runs the Government

This is going to be a slightly longer post so bear with me. I returned to the Board of Elections (BOE) in the courthouse in Doylestown two weeks ago to drop off my signed and notarized nomination petitions. Sidenote: Many thanks to all the folks who signed the petitions to get me on the ballot! After shuffling all the paperwork around, getting everything stamped and approved, I headed home. There I was in the car, happy to have checked another item off my “How to Run for Office” to-do list when it occurred to me that I didn’t know specifically what happened next. Does someone call you to say “Congrats you’re on the ballot?” Does a notice come in the mail? Was there anything else I needed to do? So I gave the BOE a call and I found what they told me to be fascinating (though admittedly, I may be using that word very loosely).

Here’s what the good folks at the Board of Elections told me:

The window to deliver nomination petitions to the BOE closes on 3/10. From 3/11-3/19 , anyone can request a copy of the petitions. This happens when opposing candidates are looking to challenge the validity of the signatures. If they can successfully challenge enough signatures to bring you below the number required, then you will not appear on the ballot. Obviously, a candidate’s name not appearing on the ballot, would severely cripple that person’s chances of winning an election. This is all sort of inside-baseball info for the average voter, but fairly well-known to folks who run for office. 

 This is where it got interesting:

If you are running against others in your own party in the primary election (May 21st folks-don’t forget), the position of your name on the ballot is determined by what the BOE called, the “throwing of lots.” This happened on 3/20 and is a public event. If a candidate wants to, they can not only attend the event but actually throw their own lot. So that’s weird and neat and I had tons of questions: Like what do these lots look like? When/Where did this ritual originate? Where exactly does the lot-throwing go down? 


Court of COmmon PLEAS Candidate Chris SerPiCo about to pull his lot from a “GReen PLeather Satchel” in order to deteRmine his positon on the ballot.

Image provided by Kristin Cadic Vogel who is Court of Common Pleas candidate Diane Magee’s proxy. Kristin was live in person at the Board of Elections to pull a lot on behalf of Diane and also recounted her exhilarating first-hand tale of this fascinating ceremony.

Also of note: For the general election, the position of your name on the ballot is determined by the party of the current Governor. In other words, if the Governor is a Democrat, the Democratic candidate gets the top spot. I haven’t seen any studies showing what effect this has on the outcome of an election, but I imagine that for this rule to exist, someone somewhere must think this provides an advantage to a candidate.

Why should we care?

The specific means by which ballot positions are chosen or ties are broken in elections may seem trivial because of how rarely they matter. Arguably in almost all cases they are, but here’s why I’m bringing it up: In 2017 there was an election in Virginia. The nominees for Governor were on the ballot as well as both houses of Virginia’s General Assembly (The Senate and the House of Delegates). Though polls showed the Governor race favored the Democrats, the Republicans had a large majority in both Houses and it would have taken an almost unprecedented “blue wave” for the Democrats to take either House. Politically, one of the major issues facing Virginia voters was whether or not they wanted the government to vote to expand Medicaid. Democrats were in favor of the expansion. Republicans were not. 

On election night, a remarkably strong showing by the Democrats resulted in a pick-up of 15 seats in the House of Delegates and the results were a 50-50 split. Incredibly, there was an actual tie in the 94th district between the Democrat and the Republican. A three judge panel declined to certify the results of the vote in that district and declared that there was no winner. So the control of this whole branch of government came down to who won this single district, and the results of that district were TIED. The way they resolved the tie was by, yes-you guessed it, drawing lots. They put canisters with the candidates’ names, into a custom made stoneware bowl and in front of a crowd of about one hundred, chose a canister. The Republican’s name was chosen and the House of Delegates stayed in the hands of the Republicans throwing the future of the Medicaid expansion into jeopardy. 

Every long post needs a moral

So the point of my long post is (and congrats on making it this far): The details of how we run our elections aren’t important until all of the sudden they really, REALLY are. In Virginia the fate of who gets health care and who doesn’t literally could have been determined by a chance drawing of names from a bowl. How we run our election process matters and every single vote makes a difference.

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