National News

Virginia’s Tiebreaker Drawing Is Back On. But It May Not Settle House Race.

Posted January 3, 2018 5:58 p.m. EST

Virginia’s on-again, off-again drawing to break a tie in a state House race is back on, with the winner’s name to be ceremoniously plucked from a bowl on Thursday in Richmond.

But the drawing, the latest chapter in an election melodrama that has drawn wide attention, may fail to bring finality, since the loser can request a recount — which would be the second recount of the original vote.

At 11 a.m. in a building named for Patrick Henry, adjacent to the state Capitol, Virginia’s Board of Elections plans to chose the winner of House District 94 “by lot,” as state law specifies. The proceedings will be live-streamed. The only thing that might intervene is a winter storm headed for the Mid-Atlantic states, James Alcorn, the chairman of the elections board, said on Twitter.

An earlier drawing was canceled when the Democratic candidate, Shelly Simonds, asked a recount court overseeing the race to reconsider an ambiguous ballot for her opponent, David Yancey, a Republican. The court had already decided to count the ballot in question for Yancey on Dec. 20, deadlocking the race at 11,608 votes apiece. A day earlier, Simonds, a Newport News school board member, had been one vote ahead after the hand inspection of ballots in the first recount.

On Wednesday, the three-judge recount court rejected Simonds’ motions filed last week to intervene. So the drawing is on, a spectacle whose rarity is compounded by the fact that it is not just one seat at stake, but the balance of power in the state’s lower chamber, which calls itself the oldest elected legislative body in the United States.

The House, which reconvenes on Jan. 11, is now 51-49 in favor of Republicans. A Simonds victory could force bipartisan power sharing and give Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor-elect, more leverage for liberal priorities like expanding Medicaid.

Choosing officials by lot may rub small-d democrats the wrong way. In fact, it has a venerable history. Ancient Athens chose its officeholders by lottery. Athenians believed it was fairer than elections, which they knew could be bought by the rich.

High officials of 14th-century Florence were also chosen from a pool of names drawn out of a sack.

In political philosophy, selecting leaders by lot is called sortition. Although cases in the United States are rare, they are not unknown. Here are examples of lot-drawing, coin-flipping, card-picking and other means of settling ties from history.

Mississippi, 2015

Two tied candidates for a House seat selected silver business-card boxes with the state’s name, then opened them to compare straws inside. The Democrat, Blaine Eaton, drew a long green straw. His Republican opponent, Mark Tullos, had a short red straw. But the victory was short-lived: The Republican-controlled House threw out some ballots for Eaton, the incumbent, and seated his Republican challenger.

Alaska, 2006

After two Democrats tied in a primary for a House seat, a recount and state Supreme Court challenge followed, but the matter was ultimately decided by a coin toss. A special coin with a walrus on one side (heads) and the state seal on the other (tails) was flipped at a library in Anchorage. The challenger, Bryce Edgmon, won the toss and his luck has held: he is now Speaker of the Alaska House.

Nevada, 2002

A 107-107 tie for a seat on the Esmeralda County Commission was settled Old West-style by drawing a high card. The county clerk and treasurer shuffled the deck, then fanned them out like a blackjack dealer. Both candidates drew jacks, but the Democrat’s spade beat the Republican’s diamond.

Wyoming, 1994

After a deadlocked race for the state House, a Ping-Pong ball was drawn from the cowboy hat of Wyoming’s governor. The winning ball bore the name of the Republican, Randall Luthi.

Virginia, 1971

The last time Virginia’s State Board of Elections broke a tie “by lot” was in 1971 after a House race deadlocked with 16,410 votes apiece in the northern suburbs. The elections board chairman donned a patriotic blindfolded and drew an envelope from a silver trophy cup, which had been borrowed from a collection at the Executive Mansion, according to The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The winner, Republican William H. Moss, and the loser, Democrat Jim Burch, agreed that drawing was a bad idea, according to The Times-Dispatch. “There should have been a runoff to let the people decide,” Burch said.

New Jersey, 1804

The famous duel between Aaron Burr, the sitting vice president, and Alexander Hamilton, a former Treasury secretary, wasn’t over an election. But the roots of their yearslong feud can be traced to a tied race. In the presidential election of 1800, the Electoral College deadlocked with 73 votes each for Burr and Thomas Jefferson. The race was thrown into the House of Representatives, where Hamilton used his considerable influence to elect Jefferson. Four years later, the bitterness between the two men had escalated and they faced off with dueling pistols beneath the cliffs of Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton was mortally wounded, and although Burr was physically unscathed his political career was over, showing that it is possible to win a face-off but also lose.