Democracy, casino style

Of course this Las Vegas suburb would break an electoral tie with nothing more than a deck of cards.

Nevada’s press-your-luck culture stretches far beyond the video poker screens embedded in many bar tops. Its economy cratered when the Silver State wagered everything on the casino and construction industries.

Ties in local elections? They’re also left to fate.

This stucco-and-asphalt city of more than 200,000 residents, once among the nation’s fastest-growing, recently held a City Council primary that most voters blew off. The winner, Pamela Goynes-Brown, nabbed just 27% of ballots. It wasn’t enough to avoid a June runoff with the second-place finisher.


The problem: two women were tied for second — each with 328 votes — and state law said the victor would be decided “by lot.”

Card draws have determined a winner in at least five Nevada races, said Christopher Driggs, a state archivist, all in rural counties whose electorates could probably fit into North Las Vegas City Hall.

At least one election has been settled by flipping a coin, and a tie in a district attorney primary was broken by tossing a die. (The winner rolled a six to trump his rival’s five, but his good fortune petered out in the general election, which he lost.)

A luck-of-the-draw resolution has crowned winners in other states, including in Arizona in 2009, but some North Las Vegas residents still bemoaned the Wild West throwback. Their city has been wracked by foreclosures and a 17% jobless rate, and was forced to cancel its hot air BalloonaPalooza.


And now this?

“It is just so bizarre,” said council hopeful Tanya Flanagan, shaking her head.

The city clerk’s office busied itself devising rules. No jokers. Aces would be high cards. The dealer would be an instructor from a nearby casino management program.

“This is Nevada,” said the instructor, David A. Hernandez. “This is what we’re all about — chance.”

The candidates would pick their cards in alphabetical order: Flanagan, then Linda Meisenheimer, who’d posted on her campaign Facebook page: “Pray for an Ace!”

Officials worried something could still go awry, so before the drawing in the City Council chambers, they dispatched the city spokeswoman to Walgreens, where she bought two decks of Bicycle standard cards in case the dealer’s four decks were insufficient.

“I passed on the pinochle and bridge cards,” said spokeswoman Juliet Casey.

Meisenheimer, who wore a purple pantsuit and a politician’s grin, said a friend urged her to practice beforehand. They fanned out cards a few times in hopes Meisenheimer could plot a strategy.


“I realized there was none,” she said.

At 5 p.m. on Thursday, Mayor Pro Tempore William Robinson started the proceedings. A gaggle of reporters crowded around the lectern where residents normally griped to council members.

The surface had been draped with a card-table-green cloth, which dealer Hernandez had brought. It announced in red letters: “Black Jack Pays 3 to 2.”

A deck of cards was chosen, its plastic removed. The packed room tensed. “I might go have a cigarette,” someone joked.

Robinson tried to shuffle the cards, but other officials called out: “No!” That wasn’t part of the plan. He handed the deck to Hernandez, who shuffled with a high-end floor man’s finesse. When he spread the cards on the cloth in a graceful arch, the audience responded: “Oooooooo.”

Flanagan, wearing a red jacket and a solemn expression, inhaled deeply and grabbed a card. She flipped it over.

Five of diamonds.

Meisenheimer selected her card, turned it over and exhaled.


King of diamonds.

The rivals hugged. Another exercise in democracy, Nevada style, was complete.