In tied U.S. elections, chance, not voters, often decides final outcome

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 21, 2017 4:44 PM

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) - After months of campaigning, Melissa Trenary's election last month to the city council in Colorado's historic mining town of Cripple Creek came down to the luck of the draw – literally.

Trenary and her opponent, Jeff Regester, were deadlocked at 63 votes apiece after a recount, leaving officials to determine the race randomly "by lot" under state law. Each candidate drew one playing card from a freshly shuffled deck, with Trenary pulling the 10 of diamonds and Regester the seven of clubs – giving Trenary the high card and the victory.

"I just about fainted," said Trenary, 50, who works at a local casino. "I started shaking and I started crying – I was just so happy."

A random drawing to decide tied elections is a little known tradition of American democracy. Next week, the process will determine control of the Virginia House of Delegates, after a recount and court battle left Republican incumbent lawmaker David Yancey and Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds tied at 11,608 votes each.

Republicans hold a 50-49 advantage in the 100-seat chamber, and a Simonds victory would force a power-sharing arrangement between the parties.

At least 32 states call for a random drawing to resolve some types of elections, such as municipal races, according to a Reuters review of state laws and research done by the National Conference of State Legislatures in 2014. Other states put the decision in the hands of the legislature or require a runoff.

Hawaii has perhaps the most unusual method of deciding ties, using a calculation called "election rate points" that rewards candidates who registered higher turnout in voting precincts.

While Idaho mandates a coin toss, most states that provide for random drawings do not specify the mechanism. Elections in a number of states in recent years have been decided by pulling names from a hat, drawing straws or grabbing colored wooden blocks from a bag.

'FIND A NICE HAT'

In Virginia, the chairman of the state's elections board, James Alcorn, said on Thursday that each candidate's name would be written onto an equal number of pieces of paper and then placed into old film canisters. The canisters will go into a bowl and shaken before a board member picks one out and declares a winner.

"We should find a nice hat for the drawing," Alcorn joked on Twitter.

The town of Manteo, North Carolina, needed two drawings to determine the winner of a November board of commissioners race after incumbent Martha Wickre and challenger Richie Burke were tied at 410 following two recounts, according to local media.

The candidates first drew straws to decide who would get to call the coin toss. Wickre picked the long straw and called heads, only to be declared the loser when the coin landed on tails.

Tied elections, while unprecedented at the federal level and extremely unusual at the state level, are somewhat more common in local races, where the smaller number of votes makes a tie more likely. Colorado, for instance, saw two other tied local races this year along with the Cripple Creek election, with both resolved by pulling a name out of a bowl.

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A 2001 study by researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research found only one federal election decided by a single vote between 1898 and 1992. In more than 40,000 state legislative races between 1968 and 1989, the study reported just two ties.

The Virginia race is particularly noteworthy due to the high stakes for both parties, though at least one other recent tied race carried statewide implications.

In 2015, a Democratic lawmaker in Mississippi, Blaine Eaton, won a tied election by drawing a long, green straw, while his Republican challenger pulled a short, red straw. The victory prevented Republicans from gaining a supermajority in the legislature to override Democrats' opposition to tax cut bills and other legislation.

The Democrats' win was short-lived, however. Two months later, the Republican-controlled legislature voted to unseat Eaton after a special committee concluded Eaton had gotten five provisional ballots that should not have counted.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Tom Brown)