Heads, I Win: FiveThirtyEight Looks at Tie Votes – and Tie-Breakers

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[Image courtesy of whatsupwhatson]

Back in September, I wrote about the possibility of a coin flip in a local Mississippi race because of questions about voter ID. Ultimately, it ended up not happening, but still the idea of tied elections – and the prospect of a coin flip to decide them – has always intrigued me.

Apparently I’m not the only one; Harvard Kennedy School PhD candidate Stephen Pettigrew recently wrote about tied elections and tie-breakers for the popular web site FiveThirtyEight. Here’s what he had to say:

Election Day was a month ago, but the winners of many races are still being decided, and not just by recounts or runoff elections such as Saturday’s Senate runoff in Louisiana. There are a handful of elections across the country that ended in a tie, in which the winner has been decided by drawing lots, flipping coins or other games of chance.

With hundreds of seats in Congress, thousands of seats in state legislatures, and tens of thousands of mayor, city council, county judge and local dog catcher elections being regularly held, it’s almost certain that each year some will end up tied. But because tied elections are so rare for any given office, most state and local election boards do not lay out guidelines for resolving them. In many states, the law indicates that ties should be broken by a “game of chance,” but details are rarely specified. [Raise your hand if you’re surprised at this. Me neither. – ed.] This can create interesting tiebreakers.

On Tuesday night, a tied election for a City Council seat in Mount Dora, Florida, was resolved when Marie Rich’s name was pulled from a felt-top hat on a red-velvet-covered table. Rich had received 2,349 votes in the Nov. 4 election, the exact same number as incumbent Nick Girone. Because the city’s charter did not lay out a process for breaking ties, the council voted to resolve the matter by drawing lots rather than spending as much as $15,000 on another election.

Last month, two candidates each received 246 votes for the 1st District commissioner in Cook County, Minnesota. It was originally suggested that the candidates draw from a bag with two Scrabble tiles, and the person who picked the “Z” would become commissioner. Ultimately, the race was instead decided by drawing wooden blocks from a cloth bag. Frank Moe drew the red block; Kristin DeArruda Wharton drew the blue one. Moe won the seat.

Perhaps the most elaborate tiebreaking procedure took place last month in Duval County, Florida. Rory Diamond and Richard Arthur had each received 1,448 votes for Seat 4 on the Neptune Beach City Council. To break the tie, Diamond’s name was drawn from a bag by a third party. This allowed Diamond the chance to call the coin toss. He won the toss by calling heads. Because of this, he could decide whether to draw first or second from a bag of ping-pong balls, numbered one through 20. He deferred to Arthur, who drew No. 12. The ball was replaced, and Diamond then drew No. 4. Arthur won the seat.

In other words, Diamond and Arthur played three games of chance. Each game provided 50-50 odds to each man. Diamond won two of the games, but Arthur won the seat because the third game was the only one that mattered.

Should we worry, then, about having to resort to equally strange rituals to choose our governors, senators or even presidents? Luckily, the chances of ties in those races are very low. According to a study by Casey B. Mulligan and Charles G. Hunter, between 1898 and 1992 there were no tied elections for federal office and only one (New York’s 36th District in 1910) that was decided by one vote. Only twice has a general election for a state legislative seat resulted in a tie: a Rhode Island state Senate race in 1978 and a 1980 New Mexico state House race. The former was decided by a special election, the latter by a coin flip.

Although it is probably true that your vote in 2016 will not determine who succeeds President Obama in the White House, it could prevent candidates like Nick Girone, Kristin DeArruda Wharton and Rory Diamond from having their fate left up to a coin flip.

What I find most fascinating about stories like this is – unlike many other things about which I blog – tie votes are completely out of the control of election administrators and therefore there is nothing they can do to prepare or prevent such occurrences. When they do, however – and winner and loser head home satisfied at the outcome – I wonder if election officials think to themselves “I wish it it were always that easy …”

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