Here’s how a coin flip, a pilgrim hat and a poker game have all been used to settle tied elections

Officials use a high-speed machine in a Dec. 19 recount of votes in the 94th District Virginia House of Delegates race.
(Joe Fudge / Daily Press / Associated Press )

Mayor Margaret Gentle stood before a room of residents and city employees in North Port, Fla., explaining why, after almost 15 years as their leader, she would be stepping down.

Her reelection race had ended in a tie, with Gentle and her challenger, Frank Coulter, each receiving 1,554 votes.

The city attorney determined that the race would be decided by a coin toss, but Gentle wouldn’t stand for that. That, she said, would demean the voters of North Port, a city south of Tampa.

''I will not in any way participate in a coin flip for the highest office of this city,” Gentle said that day in 1987. “I won’t degrade the office.”


Three decades later, no one has figured out a more advanced way to handle a tied election — other than by chance or, in some cases, holding another election.

On Wednesday, the question of whether Republicans will remain in the majority in the Virginia House of Delegates could be determined by two film canisters, placed in a bowl.

If the film canister pulled has Democrat Shelly Simonds’ name inside, then the House of Delegates would be split between Democrats and Republicans. If Republican David Yancey’s name is pulled, then Republicans would maintain their 51-49 majority.

However, Simonds’ attorneys are set to file legal motions Wednesday that could delay the drawing, their argument being that three judges made a “clear legal error” in how they certified the election results.

Determining a tied election by drawing lots might seem archaic, but in least 23 states, it’s allowed at some level for general elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Ties are more common in American politics than people may think, but to have one make such a crucial difference at a relatively high level of government — 11,608 votes each for the two candidates in Virginia’s 94th District — isn’t.

“To have the entire balance of the state legislature dependent on one seat, and that seat being dependent on one vote — that does not happen often,” said Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin.

Rather, tied elections are usually found at a more local level and involve a smaller number of overall voters — for example, the race for a school board seat.


A coin flip is often used to decide such races, but in several cases, settling a tied election is left up to local leaders. Election outcomes have been determined by drawing names out of hats, jars and even cardboard boxes.

Earlier this year, an election for village president in Colp, Ill. — population 224 — was determined by coin flip after both candidates tied with 11 votes each.

Last year, after a tie in the race for a seat on the city council in West Jordan, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, the winner’s name was drawn — thanks to a council member’s large collection of hats — from a pilgrim-style hat.

In 1992, to settle a tie in a Republican primary race for a state House election in Arizona, two candidates — Richard Kyle and John Galord — settled on a game of five-card stud.


Seated at a table in a courtroom, Arizona House Speaker Jane Hull, a Republican, wore a green casino visor and arm garters as she shuffled the cards. Kyle won, with a pair of sevens.

In 1990, a tied mayoral election in a coastal town in Greece was determined by a judge pulling a name from a jar.

The winner, leftist candidate Dimitris Kounenakis, didn’t choose the path of humility in his subsequent comments.

“I believe luck confirmed reality — that we were the better party,” he said.


Graham “Butch” Lenton, a mayoral candidate in Winton, Australia, likely captured the attitude of many candidates when chance doesn’t go their way in settling a tied contest.

In 2008, Lenton and his opponent, Ed Warren, each received 423 votes. Warren won after his name was drawn from a hat.

“What gets me is that the election is run fair and square according to the rules and then you get knocked off by Lady Luck,” Lenton told a Brisbane newspaper, the Courier-Mail.

Reema Amin, a reporter with the Daily Press of Newport News, Va., contributed to this report.


Twitter: @jaclyncosgrove