Teen who messed up absentee ballot in 1971 reflects on creating Virginia’s last tied race

|     Laura Vozzella, The Washington Post      |

THE last time Virginia pulled a name out of a hat to decide an election, Stephen Burns was a newly minted voter, so jazzed about getting the franchise that he was willing to jump through multiple hoops to pick his state legislators.

That was back in November 1971, just months after the 26th Amendment had lowered the voting age from 21. An 18-year-old from Springfield, Burns had to vote absentee since he was off at college in upstate New York.

He had to go to the Colgate University registrar’s office to fill out his ballot since in those days, absentees needed to be notarised. And when he realised he’d made a couple mistakes, he took great pains to correct them.

Burns had meant to vote a straight Republican ticket, supporting the party’s push under then-Gov Linwood Holton, R, to end segregation. But after filling out the ballot, which at the time did not identify General Assembly candidates by party, he realised he’d accidentally voted for two Democrats in what was then a multi-member House of Delegates district.

He neatly crossed out the Democrats’ names, then added a note: “Do not desire to vote for these two.”

It was all for naught.

Election judges ruled that Burns had ‘defaced’ his ballot with the extra markings and tossed it out, even after he publicly came forward to explain his blunder.

The ruling left the race for a Fairfax House seat dead even, leading to a tie-breaking drawing from a silver loving cup.

His candidate won. So in the end, no harm done. But the episode has been on Burns’ mind lately as Virginia grapples once again with tied House race, a disputed ballot with extra markings, and the prospect of letting the luck of the draw settle it all.

Barring court intervention, the contest will be decided in Richmond Thursday when a name is plucked from a turquoise, 19th century pitcher. And this time, a lot more is riding on the outcome than the occupant of single House seat. Control of the chamber hangs in the balance.

Stephen Burns holds a clipping of a Washington Post story from 1971 about Burns’ ballot while sitting for a portrait in his home in Washington, DC on December 30, 2017. In 1971, Burns used an absentee ballot to vote in a northern Virginia delegate race. – PHOTOS: WP-BLOOM
A Washington Post story from 1971 about Stephen Burns’ ballot sits on a table in his home in Washington

A win by Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds would split the 100-seat House down the middle, forcing a rare power-sharing arrangement on a chamber that Republicans have controlled for 17 years. If incumbent Del David Yancey, R, prevails, the GOP would hold a 51-49 majority.

Burns says the political import of the current fight is of no interest him, now a 64-year-old political independent and Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner. He has not lived in Virginia since the 1970s, raising his family in Maryland, then moving with his wife to the District as empty nesters.

But something about the Yancey-Simonds saga nags at Burns: His ballot was thrown out even though he went to great lengths to make his intentions clear.

Yet the ballot at the centre of the current fight – with bubbles filled in for both would-be delegates, plus a slanted line across one bubble – seems harder, if not impossible to decipher. And still, that ballot was counted.

“I’ve been following the news of the tie vote in the Virginia House of Delegates race, not because I am keenly interested in Virginia politics, but because I myself voted in a tie election in Virginia and challenged the discarding of my ballot that would have broken the tie,” Burns wrote in an email to The Post.

“If my case still carries any precedent, it’s hard to see how the . . . [recount judges] validated the ballot that resulted in Yancey pulling into a tie with Simonds. Like mine, that ballot marked two boxes, but the voter didn’t even attempt to provide any clarification. If mine was considered ‘defaced’ and was thereby rejected, I don’t see how the one on which this race rests could be considered valid.”

Clara Belle Wheeler, the lone Republican on Virginia’s three-member Board of Elections, said the state has changed its recount guidelines over the years. Since Virginia has moved away from touch-screen voting machines in recent years and back to paper ballots that can be physically reviewed, the guidelines have directed vote-counters to divine the voter’s intent whenever possible.

“Now you can take into consideration the voter’s intent because everybody’s got paper,” she said.

If it’s fair game to interpret the voter’s intent these days, the question remains: Just what was that Yancey-Simonds voter trying to do on that ballot?

The voter, whose identity is unknown, filled in bubbles on the paper ballot for Simonds and Yancey but also made a slanted mark across the Simonds bubble. Was that an attempt to strike out the Simonds vote? Or was it half of an ‘X’, abandoned as the voter reverted to filling in bubbles? In a vote counted for Ed Gillespie, the GOP’s unsuccessful candidate for governor, the voter drew an ‘X’ over the bubble in addition to filling it in.

After puzzling over the disputed ballot for hours on December 19, a panel of three judges decided the extra mark was meant to nix the vote for Simonds. They counted the ballot for Yancey, an interpretation the GOP embraced. Democrats say it looks like an ‘overvote’, meaning an improper vote for both candidates, and should be tossed.

They asked the judges to reconsider, causing the elections board to call off a planned drawing last week. The board said it will go ahead with the drawing Thursday unless the court acts.

Whatever the outcome, the battle drove Burns to the ‘family heirloom file’ to reflect on his own role in Virginia’s last – and perhaps only – luck-of-the-draw election tie-breaker.

And he found a copy of The Washington Post from December 25, 1971.

“Youth, 18, Says He Cast Vote That, Thrown Out, Tied Race,” read the headline. Underneath was a photo of him, dark hair swooped to one side, posing with a pen or pencil akin to what he used to fill out his ill-fated ballot. WP-BLOOM