A San Gabriel City Council race has officially ended in an exact tie. The tiebreaker could be a little-known elections statute that calls for a process whose results are as random as a coin toss — sometimes literally.
Incumbent Juli Costanzo and challenger Denise Menchaca both accumulated 1,276 votes after all ballots, including provisional and vote-by-mail ones, were tallied.
The candidates — or voters — have five days to ask for a manual recount, and no one has so far indicated that one will be sought. In California, the governing body has to adopt a resolution agreeing to use a runoff election as a tiebreaker before the election happens. San Gabriel has never passed such a resolution, so the only possible tiebreakers are a recount or some form of random decision-making.
According to state election code, a tied election can be decided "by lot" — which is to say, by any method that leaves its outcome to chance.
"Roll the dice, pick a card, flip a coin, draw straws," said Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin, a former president of the California Assn. of Clerks and Elected Officials. "Personally, I'm still waiting to see a game of musical chairs."
Several states have codes stipulating that deadlocked elections be decided by chance.
A 1998 New Mexico magistrate judge's race came down to a hand of poker — seven-card stud, all up.
In 2008, Arizona school board candidate Delson Sunn won his seat by rolling a nine with a pair of dice (his opponent rolled a four).
Last year, a candidate for alderman in a small Mississippi town lost after she drew the short straw.
Election officials have also used Scrabble tile drawings and, yes, coin flips.
The council hasn't decided which game of chance will serve as the tiebreaker if one is needed.
Exact ties are extremely rare, said Brenda Duran, spokeswoman for at the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk's office. It's happened just once in recent memory, in 2005, when two candidates tied for the last seat of the Los Nietos School District board (a recount awarded the seat to the challenger). Staffers in the county clerk's office say they do not know of any previous election that has been decided by lot.
Nor can Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley recall an Orange County election that was decided by a game of chance, though in 2012, a city clerk in San Clemente drew names from a hat to determine which of two City Council candidates named Robert "Bob" Baker would appear first on the ballot.
Pellerin, who has worked as an election official in some capacity for more than two decades, says she's noticed elections of all kinds getting closer and closer.
"Our voters are more closely divided," Pellerin said. "Elections are harder to predict. It's not so black and white any more."
Election officials prefer comfortably wide margins of victory. But close elections can be better for democracy, she said, because they show that every vote is important.
In other words, she'd rather have a voter make the decision than a coin.