Charleston, WV – West Virginians will sometimes say they don’t vote because their vote doesn’t count, but in a surprising number of races, every single vote matters. If you don’t believe it, just ask Rod Snyder.
“I lost by 96 votes, just around one percentage point. Essentially nine votes in every precinct. If I would've just had nine more people turn out in each precinct, I would have won the race.”
Snyder was the Democratic candidate in the 67th district, in Jefferson County. He lost the squeaker to now Delegate Riley Moore. He says that they knew it was going to be a hard fought race, close and costly.
“All along we anticipated it would be a close race. And it turned out to be the most expensive single member delegate race in the state in 2016 – almost a quarter million dollars in total was spent on just eight thousand votes. And in the end came down to just fewer than 100 votes.”
His wasn’t the closest race that year – Nancy Guthrie lost reelection in Kanawha county by 13 votes. And they were hardly alone. That year four state Senate races were won by fewer than a thousand votes, and sixteen House of Delegates seats were decided by fewer than five hundred ballots.
That at a time when the state has had one of the lowest rates of voter participation in the country. According to personal finance website Wallethub, in the last two general elections West Virginia has the lowest and the next to lowest turnout rates of any state.
Both Snyder and Guthrie say with Donald Trump running for President that year, and very popular in West Virginia it was always going to be tough as a Democrat. But Guthrie had been in the legislature for a decade, which made her loss a little more unusual.
“Luckily I didn't lose by very many votes, which meant that it wasn't a full repudiation of everything that I had done over the last ten years. That made me feel a little bit better. But I was a liberal Democrat in a Trump year and it was very difficult for a lot of people to stay with the Democratic Party. So I lost.”
She says going through the process of losing a race that close was excruciating.
“Four votes the night of the election. And truth of the matter is I almost wish it had been 40 votes more for my opponent and just gotten it over with, because even worse than losing a race is having to go through a canvas.”
Canvasing is double checking the vote totals, precinct by precinct, and shouldn’t be confused with a recount – which is much more elaborate. But Guthrie says a canvas is automatic when the totals are that close, and she says it was really painful to watch.
“After the first couple of rounds I realized things just weren't going to break my way. But you know we have to sit through the whole thing just in case some miracle happens and it never did.”
“If you're going to make a comparison, I'm sort of a poster child for why every vote matters. If I had had six more votes election night, 15 more votes after the canvass, I would have won that race.”
Ray Canterbury, Jr. had represented what became the 42nd House of Delegates district in Greenbrier County for sixteen years starting in 2000. By the time he’d lost reelection in 2016 – by a little more than three hundred votes – he had become a rising member of the house Republican leadership.
He says looking back wasn’t that disappointing to lose – he says change can be a good thing, in the government and in our lives.
“You should always get new people, new faces in the legislature, although it also helps to have people there for a long period of time that actually understand the process to get things done. And I think a certain amount of turnover is good on a personal level. It becomes very consuming and it becomes very difficult to get other things done. Over time I’ve decided personally that I like policy, but politics itself kind of wears on me.”
He says the divisiveness of our current politics not only puts people off, it might get in the way of addressing a crisis, if we have one.
“We have some very deep divisions about how to best go about solving problems and it occurred to me that at some point if this country really faced a serious challenge it might be ungovernable because there's no center anymore. And that started to be a little disturbing.”
Canterbury says he does see signs that more people are engaged, and maybe even likely to show up at the polls in November because of what he calls “this year’s anger.” But he describes the lack of long term engagement on the part of a huge part of the public as a serious problem for the system.
“People complain about how slow our government is. Well, it is slow. It's slow by design, to force people to talk to each other and to have a dialogue and to have a discussion. But any more we talk at each other not to each other.”
He says that’s a problem for a public that has become impatient. “We've learned from watching so many sitcoms and so many television shows that we've taught ourselves that all the world's problems are solved in 30 minutes. And the world isn’t really like that.”
He says he doesn’t have any good ideas about how to address that.
Unlike Canterbury, Mark Ross – a Wayne County teacher who lost the race for the House of Delegates in District 19 by a little more than 200 votes – has not given up running for the legislature. Ross is a Republican who is running for the same spot again. He blames “special interest money” and the long-time strength of the Democratic party in the area for his loss.
“My area of Wayne County is heavily Democrat and a lot of special interest group money poured into the race. I didn't do the special interest money. My opponents spent thirty thousand dollars and I ended up spending about seventeen hundred dollars.”
He says “a lot of time voters do get a little bit, they just feel like that they're never going to be able to make a difference. But in my race alone there was a two hundred eleven vote difference. So if I just had half those people show up for me, I would have won.”
For his part Snyder says one problem with a low election turnout is it undermines the democratic basis of the government.
“It's certainly not good for our state, because you have fewer and fewer people making bigger and bigger decisions about our future. And I don't I just don't think that's a healthy way to govern.”
He says people sometimes feel disconnected from the government, in the sense that what happens in Charleston has little or no effect on them. He says that’s not true, and points to the fact that he campaigned on raising pay for teachers, which of course became a huge issue at the legislature.
“My opponent at the time, who is now in the House of Delegates, voted several times against teacher pay raises and was part of the reason why the school system was closed for nearly two weeks back in the winter. These elections ultimately have a direct effect on our daily lives”
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Dan Heyman has been covering West Virginia politics and policy for more than two decades. He likes dogs but has trouble keeping kudzu from swallowing everything he owns. For more of Dan's WV Strong content, click here.