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When Coin Flips and Other Games of Chance Settle Tied Elections

February 25, 2020 by Dan McCue
(Photo: The International City/County Management Association)

It was an unusual way to spend a Thursday morning in January to say the least. Though the 2017 House of Delegates election was for the most part in its rear view mirror, the Virginia State Board of Elections had gathered for its closing act.

Also in the room were two candidates, Republican David Yancey and Democrat Shelly Simonds, their families, attorneys, and a smattering of interested bystanders.

What they had come for was to see who would win the race to represent the Virginia’s 94th District: Yancey, the incumbent, or Simonds, the challenger.

Unfortunately, the voters in the district hadn’t been much help, splitting their votes 11,608-to- 11,608, and leaving the election in a tie.

Now, the fates of Yancey and Simonds, not to mention that of the state legislature, would be decided by the drawing of a name from a ceramic bowl.

Despite the fact we live in an age of big money politics and expansive campaign organizations, deciding the outcome of an election by random chance isn’t all that rare an occurrence in American politics.

In fact, a number of states and communities across the nation have long standing tie-breaking rules and rituals to settle deadlocked elections and they rely on everything from a coin flip to the drawing of straws to the name drawn from a bowl (or other receptacle) as is practiced in Virginia.

Dr. Dorotha Herreiner, an expert in game theory and director of the Experimental Economics Laboratory in Loyola Marymount University in California, said the coin flip and other random games of chance have become the preferred way of settling tied elections because they’re easy to play and expose both sides to the same level of risk.

“In short, we simply don’t know of any better mechanisms,” Dr. Herreiner said.

Other Notable Examples

Although there has yet to be a presidential race settled in such a fashion, examples in down-ballot races abound.

For instance, in 2006, a Democratic primary for a state House seat in Alaska was decided by the toss of a commemorative coin that depicted walruses on the heads side of the coin and the Alaska state seal on the tails side.

Incumbent Carl Moses called heads, but the coin came up tails, so Democratic challenger Bryce Edgmon, was named the winner. Edgmon went on to defeat Republican nominee Ron Bowers in the general election and today he’s speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives.

In November 2013, a coin toss also determined the winner of the mayoral race in the Idaho town of Albion.

The town at the time had a population of under 300 people, 120 of whom turned out to vote for either incumbent Don Bowden or his challenger, John Davis. When all the votes were counted on election day, each man had garnered the support of 60 voters.

After a coin flip was called to determine the winner, Bowden correctly picked tails, allowing him to stay in office for another term.

Coin flips in 2018 also decided who would be mayor of Magnolia, Ohio, and which of two write-in candidates would prevail in a city council race in Crescent Springs, Kentucky.

Of course, once you open the door to combining elections with games of chance, things can get interesting.

In 2002, a seat on the Esmeralda County Commission in Nevada was decided in the community’s ornate courthouse. The county clerk-treasurer shuffled a deck and fanned the cards out on a table like a casino dealer. Both candidates drew jacks, but the Democrat’s spade beat out the Republican’s diamond.

In 2015, two Mississippi House candidates broke a tie by reaching into a red canvas bag and pulling out a silver-plated business card box engraved with the state’s name. The winner drew the box with a longer straw in it.

Hats have also proven popular vehicles for helping to decide races.

In Florida in 2014, a Mount Dora City Council race was decided when City Clerk Gwen Johns drew a sealed envelope with one candidate’s name out of a felt top hat. Incumbent Nick Girone and challenger Marie Rich had both received 2,349 votes in the November election and after lengthy deliberations on how to settle the contest, the top hat approach won out.

With the two candidates holding the hat, Johns took out a sealed envelope and tore it open. “The winner is Marie Rich,” Johns said.

Similarly, a tied 1986 City Council election in Williamsburg, Virginia was decided by drawing names from a tri-corner hat popular in that colonial period.

Close Calls On The Road to The White House

For some reason, presidential contests have been immune from being settled by a random game of chance, but there have been close calls.

The best known of them was the presidential election of 1800. Thomas Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr tied in the Electoral College vote, as the Constitution did not distinguish votes between president and vice president.

The vote then went to the House, which voted 35 times without either candidate getting a majority. Finally, Jefferson won and became the third president on the 36th vote, and Aaron Burr became the vice president.

The controversy led to the ratification of the 12th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which established procedures for electing the president and vice president and put in place contingencies in case of a tie.

More recently, in the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore topped George W. Bush in New Mexico by just 366 votes. If the two had tied, state law would have called for the election to be decided by a game of chance, such as a single hand of poker. But local officials acknowledged that it was a long shot.

It’s All a Game

Dr. Herreiner suggested it’s easy to think of game theory when an election comes down to a coin toss but actually the entire electoral process can be explained through a study of mathematical models of the strategic interaction among rational decision-makers.

“In class, I often look at models with my students in which we consider where parties should locate on the voter spectrum,” she said.

“In a two-party system like we have here, we look at elections and see that there’s sort of a smooth distribution of voters from left to right, and that at the end of the day, both parties, if they are interested in winning strive to be as close to the middle as possible,” Dr. Herreiner said.

“That’s because with two parties or two candidates, the least you are striving for is 50% plus one. That’s the way they’re striving to capture the market. If you can locate yourself very close to the middle and capture that 50% plus one, you don’t have to worry about the rest of the spectrum of voters,” she said.

“On the other hand, the moment a candidate or party moves more in one direction or the other, they risk leaving the field open to the other side getting to 50% plus one,” she concluded.

The phenomena Dr. Herreiner was talking about has a name: the Hotelling model. It is based on an observation from economics that, in many markets, it is rational for producers to make their products as similar as possible.

“What happens is, if both parties or if two candidates really do fall exactly in the middle, then it is indeed a coin toss,” she said.

“And it’s not at all surprising that you end up with very close races so often, because it’s actually what the theoretical model predicts.”

Dr. Herreiner acknowledged that some might quibble with all this talk of models and games.

“The real world is rather complex,” she said.

But she noted one factor that is helping to “flatten” the real world and make the model outcomes more likely is the “winner-takes-all-business” of the media.

“The media is all about trying to attract attention in whatever way possible,” she said. “It’s not a nuanced discussion. It’s a focus on headlines and stuff that is catchy. Without this simplification, voters align in much more complicated ways than the simple model I’ve described.

“In a sense, the media simplifies the model and makes it easier for the parties to just grab for the largest share — which again gets them very close to the middle. What they’re fighting for in the end, is what in voting theory is called the median voter,” Dr. Herreiner continued.

“That’s the voter right in the middle, and when you gain that person, you win the election, because you’ve already got everybody who’s on your side. And the median voter is your plus one.

“The more the media either simplifies issues or makes us focused only on a few, the more I think that dynamic applies,” she said.

How’s That Again?

While most tiebreakers are the essence of simplicity — the toss of a coin or drawing of a name — once in awhile things get a little … elaborate.

Perhaps the best example of this is what happened in Neptune Beach, Florida in 2014. To settle a tied city council race, Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland, decreed that the name of one of the two candidates — either incumbent Richard Arthur or challenger Rory Diamond — be drawn from a hat.

The winner of the drawing then got to call heads or tails during a coin toss.

But wait, there’s more.

The winner of the coin toss then decided whether to go first or second in a random drawing of ping pong balls, numbered 1 to 20, from a cloth bag.

Arthur pulled a No. 12 ping pong ball out of a bag. Rory Diamond drew a No. 4 ball. Arthur, with the highest number, was named the winner.

“What a privilege to serve our county in my capacity as Supervisor of Elections during such a historic event,” Holland said in a press release.

The drawing in the Yancey and Simonds race in Virginia was decided by tie-breaking procedures laid out in a 1705 Virginia law.

Both candidates’ names were placed in film canisters inside a blue and white ceramic bowl made by Steven Glass, a local artist.

In the end, a representative of the board of elections drew Yancey’s name, and he was declared the new representative.

The random drawing had major repercussions on governing in Virginia. With Yancey’s win, Republicans maintained a slim 51-49 majority in the House. If Simonds had won, the two major parties would have had to share power.

On Nov. 5, 2019, the Democrats gained control of the Virginia House of Delegates the old fashioned way, by securing a 55-45 member majority at the polls.

Will The Day of the Coin Toss Go By The Wayside

Dr. Herreiner said given the dynamics of electoral politics today and the number of races that turn out be ties, or nearly so, a number of states and localities are looking for better ways of voting.

“One of the ideas out there is ‘approval voting,’ a system where you do not vote for just one candidate but instead, everyone you approve of, ranked first, second, third, fourth and so on.

“The idea is that if your preferred candidate doesn’t come in first, you still have a say in the outcome of an election. In the current one person-one vote situation, if the person you voted for doesn’t come in first, your vote is gone,” she said.

“With this new approach, your vote for second, third and fourth place would have to be taken into account as the votes were tabulated,” Dr. Herreiner explained.

“Now, there’s a long way to go before an alternative method of voting like this could be adopted, but by employing such a method you’d be much less likely to get ties,” she said.


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