It’s 2017. We have self-driving cars and face-scanning technology on our phones — but we’re still using coin tosses and names in a hat to break election ties like a nail-biting legislative race in Virginia.
That’s right, when it comes to elections, America is still living in ancient times. (Literally, Ancient Greece also used similar methods to break ties).
The tie in the Virginia House of Delegates is rare. Ties in general are uncommon, though they happen on occasion in local races. They become increasingly rare in statewide races and have never happened on the federal level, according to a 2001 study.
But these somewhat odd traditions of breaking ties probably aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, experts say.
At first, Virginia Democrat Shelly Simonds thought she’d won the race by a single vote. But on Wednesday, a panel of judges ruled that a ballot — originally thrown out by officials — should be counted in favor of her opponent, Republican David Yancey.
Now, the tie reportedly will be settled by placing both names in old film canisters and shuffling them in a clear bowl. The canister chosen will hold the winner of the race, according to The Virginia Pilot.
Experts say these methods, while a bit oddly specific, are fair and likely to be used again.
“I honestly don’t think there’s a better way to do it,” said Jacob Neiheisel, an assistant professor of political science at the University at Buffalo. “It’s a tradition we’ve long held— and it works. Both candidates have a 50-50 chance of winning, and there isn’t a way to cheat.”
Some states choose to do additional recounts, hold expensive special elections or allow a higher elected official to choose the winner, which could be biased based on a political party, Neiheisel said.
The Virginia tie would make it at least the fourth time a state legislative race was evenly split: A Rhode Island Senate race 1978 was settled by a special election; a New Mexico House race in 1980 was ultimately decided by a coin toss; and a Mississippi congressional race in 2015 was broken by drawing straws.
On the local level, the tie-breaking methods become a bit more extreme.
In Mount Dora, Fla., a tied city council race was broken after choosing names from a felt-top hat on a red-velvet-covered table. In Minnesota, a commission seat was decided by whoever picked the “Z” first from a bag of wooden Scrabble tiles.
Even if newer technology could help develop a new and inexpensive way to break ties, experts say it would mean lawmakers would have to prioritize it, which probably won’t happen because these issues don’t come up that often.
“Whoever wins — whether it’s flipping a coin or whatever method is used for a tie — the winner will at least be OK with the outcome,” said Greg Shufeldt, an assistant professor of political science at Butler University. “The loser might cry foul and want things changed, but the person who came into power isn’t going to prioritize changing a law that helped them win.”
He said the tie in Virginia is different than most because “the stakes are much higher” because this race will determine whether Republicans keep control of the state House, which they’ve controlled since 1999.
“As peculiar as all these thing are, and I mean the Virginia race could be settled with Kodak film canisters, if it’s making people realize their vote makes a difference and that maybe they should vote next time, then maybe it’s a good thing,” Shufeldt. “Hopefully it helps voter turnout.”