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Luck Of The Draw? Games Of Chance Not Uncommon In Deciding Tied Elections

Division of Elections Director Whitney Brewster flips the specially minted Alaska coin as Lt. Gov. Loren Leman and Rep. Carl Moses look on at the Loussac Library in Anchorage, Alaska, in September 2006. The coin toss broke an election tie for a disputed Alaska House seat.
Al Grillo
Division of Elections Director Whitney Brewster flips the specially minted Alaska coin as Lt. Gov. Loren Leman and Rep. Carl Moses look on at the Loussac Library in Anchorage, Alaska, in September 2006. The coin toss broke an election tie for a disputed Alaska House seat.

Updated at 11:51 a.m. ET on Jan. 4

A pivotal Virginia legislative race — and control of the entire House of Delegates — came down to the luck of the draw on Thursday.

Initially, it seemed as though Democrat Shelly Simonds had won last month's election by just one vote after a Dec. 19 recount. Then, Republican incumbent David Yancey successfully challenged one ballot, which led to an exact tie. The Virginia State Board of Elections had planned a drawing to pick the winner, but Simonds filed a legal challenge against the ballot that had deadlocked the contest.

On Jan. 3, a court rejected Simonds' challenge over the disputed ballot, meaning the race remained tied and allowing the drawing to determine the winner of the Newport News seat to move forward. Thursday morning, Yancey won the tie-breaker; Republicans now hang on to control of the chamber.

The names of the candidates were placed in two film canisters and then placed in a bowl to be drawn. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "The receptacle chosen for a starring role in the drama will be a blue-and-white, handcrafted bowl made by Steven Glass, a Richmond-based artist who serves as the resident potter at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts." A museum spokesman said the bowl was "very pretty and sort of rustic" and that "it looks like a lot of love went into making it."

Using games of chance to resolve tied elections may seem like a flippant way of deciding such important contests, but it's nothing out of the ordinary in many states or localities.

In 2014, the Washington Post found that 35 states used some type of coin toss, drawing or other means to determine a tied election. Oklahoma has the same process Virginia will use — drawing names of the two candidates by an elections official.

In Idaho, there's a coin toss.

In North Carolina, if fewer than 5,000 people vote, elections officials cast lots to determine the winner — or otherwise they can call another election.

In Indiana and Montana, the state legislatures determine the winner if there's a tie for governor.

Most ties occur at the state and local level, where there are smaller pools of voters, and recently there have been some interesting ways to pick winners in case of deadlock:

  • In October 2016, the mayoral race in Bradenton Beach, Fla., was determined by drawing cards. "In order to avoid additional controversy, the rules were clear: ace was high and, if the men drew the same number, the suits were given their own value ahead of time," CNN reported.
  • A Vegas-style card draw also was used to determine the winner of a Cripple Creek, Colo., council race earlier this month. There were two other tied contests in Colorado municipal elections this year decided by drawing cards.
  • In 2015, a Mississippi state legislative contest was decided by drawing coffee straws.
  • A New Mexico state legislative race was decided by a coin toss in 2014. As The Atlantic noted, coin tosses have also been used to break ties in New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri, Washington, Florida, Minnesota and New Hampshire.
  • A 2006 Alaska primary was still deadlocked after "a recount, a state Supreme Court challenge and wrangling over five disputed ballots to get to the coin toss," the Associated Press reported. So the state turned to a coin toss — with a special Alaska twist: "The coin featured two walruses on one side (for heads) and the Seal of the State of Alaska on the other (tails). Two grass baskets made by Aleut natives were also part of the ceremony, with one holding the coin and the other holding two small stones etched with the candidates' names."
  • When the candidates tied in a Cook County, Minn., county commissioner's race, elections officials put blue and red board game pieces in a bag, and whoever drew the red piece won the race. That was considered the fairer option: "Election officials originally planned for them to draw A or Z Scrabble letters out of a drawstring bag, but they had concerns that the indentations on the tiles could be distinguishable by touch," as the Wall Street Journal reported.
  • In 2012, a city council race in Webster, Texas, was decided by the roll of the dice, which didn't exactly go smoothly. "The decisive roll followed two failed attempts. [The first] roll skipped off the table," triggering a reroll. "When the second throws yielded a tie," the other candidate "said she became 'frayed around the edges,' " as ABC News wrote.
  • Coin flips determined winners in the already quirky Iowa caucuses last year when some Democratic sites ended up split evenly between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But as NPR's Domenico Montanaro reported, both candidates ended up winning tiebreakers at certain precincts, and games of chance weren't responsible for Clinton's narrow victory in the Hawkeye State.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.

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