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[SHORTENED] 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.

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. Today, the winner of that coin toss is speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives.

In November 2013, a coin toss determined the winner of the mayoral race in the Idaho town of Albion, and in 2018. Coin flips 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.

But coin flips are by no means the only game of random chance employed to settle elections

In 2002, a seat on the Esmeralda County Commission in Nevada was decided after 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.

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. Diamond drew a No. 4 ball. Arthur, with the highest number, was named the winner.

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, Yancey’s name was drawn, 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.

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