[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.

Elections

More People with Felony Convictions Can Vote, but Roadblocks Remain
In The News
More People with Felony Convictions Can Vote, but Roadblocks Remain

WASHINGTON — More than ever, Eric Harris is mindful of the elected officials around him: The school board members deciding whether his children will go back to the classroom, the sheriff influencing how officers interact with people like him, and the U.S. president steering the country’s... Read More

Wanted: Poll Workers Able to Brave the Pandemic
In The News
Wanted: Poll Workers Able to Brave the Pandemic

WASHINGTON — Dave and Diane Schell, a retired social studies teacher and a retired human resources professional from South Windsor, Connecticut, left their careers in 2015, and have worked the polls at their local precinct every election since. But not this November. The Schells — he’s... Read More

Courts Will Decide Georgia Voting Rights — and Maybe Election Results
State News
Courts Will Decide Georgia Voting Rights — and Maybe Election Results

ATLANTA — Fierce battles over which votes count are already being fought in courts this election season, with armies of voting rights advocates, political parties and attorneys gearing up to bring more challenges to Georgia election laws when ballots are cast. The most significant court intervention... Read More

A Million Mail-in Ballots Could Go Uncounted This Fall. The USPS May Not Be to Blame
2020 Elections
A Million Mail-in Ballots Could Go Uncounted This Fall. The USPS May Not Be to Blame

WASHINGTON — The controversial new chief of the U.S. Postal Service had not even started his job when a disturbing thing happened to hundreds of thousands of Americans who cast ballots by mail in primary elections this spring. Their votes were never counted. The torrent of... Read More

Running an Election in a Pandemic, In 10 Steps
In The News
Running an Election in a Pandemic, In 10 Steps

WASHINGTON — When the pandemic hit and more than a thousand usual poll workers backed out of working the April primary in Madison, Wisconsin, City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl needed replacements who were available to work late, had customer service skills and knew how to assess a... Read More

Absentee Ballot Requests Cropping Up in Front Yards, Churches
2020 Elections
Absentee Ballot Requests Cropping Up in Front Yards, Churches

COLUMBUS, Ohio — As Ohioans stake the names of their preferred candidates in the November election outside their homes, a new form of activism is showing up alongside the traditional candidate yard signs. Absentee ballot requests, voter registration forms and other nonpartisan information about how to... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top