More Elections Than You'd Think Are Decided By A Coin Toss

To break ties, most states draw straws, pick names from a hat or resort to other games of chance.

As the nation closely watches a nail-biting recount and subsequent challenge and tie in a Virginia election, it’s worth noting that election ties, particularly at local levels, do happen every once in a while ― and in most states, ties are broken in the same way Virginia’s will be: by tossing a coin, drawing straws or another game of sheer luck.

In a race for the House of Delegates in Virginia, a Tuesday recount had Democratic candidate Shelly Simonds leading by one vote against Republican incumbent David Yancey in the state’s 94th District.

If Simonds were to win, Republicans would lose their majority after 17 years.

But after a challenge by Yancey on Wednesday ― around a contested ballot that had previously been uncounted ― a three-judge panel ruled that the ballot would count for the Republican delegate, meaning the race was now down to a tie.

According to Virginia law, the tie will be broken “by drawing lots” ― a process of luck, such as drawing straws, flipping a coin or picking a name from a hat.

An election being decided by a game of chance is unusual but not unheard of in the U.S. (Though the situation in Virginia is decidedly rare, as the tie came not from the original vote but after a subsequent recount and then a challenge.)

While ties have never happened before in a federal election, on the state level, they do happen, albeit rarely, reports The Atlantic. But on a local level, they occur fairly often, since the chances of a tie go up when fewer votes are cast.

For instance, in a 2001 analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers looked at state legislative elections from 1968 to 1989 and found that only two state elections in those two decades had tied. In a more recent example, two opponents in a 2015 Mississippi state congressional race tied ― and broke their tie by drawing straws.

At the local level, ties happen fairly frequently: In 2012, a city council election in Walton, Kentucky, that tied at 669 votes each was decided by a coin toss; in 2014, candidates in Poplarville, Mississippi, who had tied 177-177 in an alderman’s race drew straws to determine the winner; and this year, candidates drew cards from a deck to pick the winner in a tied city council race in Cripple Creek, Colorado ― to name a few.

In most states ― about 35 total, according to a Washington Post analysis ― election ties are broken by “drawing lots,” or, in other words, in a game of chance. While most state laws do not specify a process for lot-drawing, some do: Idaho uses a coin toss, for example, and Oklahoma pulls names from a container. For the handful of states that don’t use a game of chance to break ties, most will call for another election altogether, and some will allow government officials to make the selection, The Washington Post reports.

For this week’s nail-biting recount in Virginia, the State Board of Elections has yet to decide precisely when and through which game of chance the tie will be broken. One Virginia reporter noted that a coin toss had been used in at least one past local election. But two State Board of Elections members told a Richmond paper that the lot-drawing ― which will likely happen in the coming days or weeks ― could come down to drawing straws or picking names from a hat.

Regardless of the outcome in Virginia, one lesson is crystal clear: Every vote counts.

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