On CNN, they were holding up film canisters. On Twitter, there were suggestions of an oyster-shucking contest. Some called for a return to the duel.
Much of Virginia and the political world was fascinated Thursday by the tied vote in a key House of Delegates race that will determine which party controls the chamber and how to break it.
State law that is rarely invoked requires tied elections to be settled by “lot.”
More specifically, members of the state election board will gather in Richmond on Wednesday at 11 a.m. to randomly pick either Republican incumbent David Yancey or Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds in the tied race for the 94th House District, which encompasses part of the city of Newport News. Their names will be tucked inside two film canisters placed into a bowl, hat or other receptacle.
“This will be one of the most watched lot draws in American history,” CNN reporter Ryan Nobles said Thursday as he held up a film canister and passed it to host Wolf Blitzer, who added that there were “national implications” to the exercise.
If not national implications, certainly statewide, as the result could reshuffle the political landscape in Richmond.
Yancey emerged from Election Day with a 10-vote victory margin over Simonds. A recount on Tuesday allowed Simonds to pull ahead by a single vote. But a three-judge panel on Wednesday decided that one ballot that wasn’t tallied during the recount should count for Yancey, tying the race at 11,608 votes apiece.
Currently, Republicans control 50 seats while Democrats hold 49 in the lower chamber. If Simonds wins, it would force the parties into a rare power-sharing situation.
As elections officials forged ahead with plans for the random drawing, Simonds on Thursday railed against a court that overturned her brief one-vote win over Yancey.
“I think the court made a really bad call, and I want to make sure it gets attention,” she said by phone after a gantlet of TV interviews.
“We were following the rules, and David Yancey chose not to follow the rules,” she said, calling the move “really sneaky.” Simonds said she’s considering her legal options, including an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesman for House Majority Leader R. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), who becomes speaker if Republicans maintain control of the chamber, responded to a request for comment from Yancey.
“We appreciate the time the judges gave to this matter and respect their decision in this case,” Slaybaugh said. “Everybody played by the same rules here.”
The last — and perhaps only — time that the state settled a tied election by “lot” was in 1971, when candidates for a House seat in Fairfax — Republican William H. Moss and Democrat Jim Burch — each received 16,410 votes.
Moss won after his name was drawn from a silver loving cup, according to a 1971 Washington Post story.
The elections board chairman donned a multicolored blindfold and drew a sealed envelope containing Moss’s name. Both candidates agreed the procedure was “archaic” but Burch had an anachronistic suggestion of his own. “Let’s recommend that Miss Virginia do the drawing and give both the winner and loser a kiss,” he said.
With next week’s tiebreaker determining the future of what the former speaker liked to call the “oldest continuously elected lawmaking body in the New World,” James Alcorn, chairman of the State Board of Elections, has set to work finding a suitable container.
“We’re looking for something more dignified and appropriate for the situation this time,” he said. “Something to celebrate the history and culture of Virginia.”
First he tried the Library of Virginia, but it has only documents. Next, he tried the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, but hadn’t heard back by Thursday afternoon.
Lastly, the Department of Historic Resources, the keeper of some of the state’s most precious artifacts, came up with an option: a turquoise pitcher from 1835, found by chance under long-buried stables in Richmond’s Capitol Square.
Virginia isn’t the only state that breaks tied elections by random chance.
In Nevada, an open seat on the Esmeralda County Commission was settled in 2002 when the county clerk-treasurer shuffled a deck of cards, fanned them out like a casino dealer and instructed candidates to try their luck. Both drew jacks, but the spade beat the diamond.
In Mississippi, a 2015 House election came down to candidates pulling silver-plated business card boxes out of a red canvas bag. The winner held the box containing the longer of two straws.
And in Alaska, the popular coin-toss method was used to decide a 2006 school board race. One candidate called “heads,” the coin landed on “tails,” and the election was settled. Nevermind that the winner had died on the day of the election.
While Virginia’s process for breaking a tie seems unusual to some, Alcorn said elections officials follow the same procedure several times a year to decide ballot order for candidates.
They cut up strips of paper with the candidate’s names, put each one in an opaque film canister, seal them and drop them in some sort of container. Alcorn joked that as a cost-saving measure the same canisters have been used for years.
A board member pulls one canister out, opens it, reads the name aloud and shows the slip of paper to everyone present. Then a board member from the other political party pulls out the second canister and reads the name to prove the process was fair.
Alcorn, who has been getting calls from reporters from across the country, stressed that the department is following a process set up in state code. “This isn’t something the state board decided to do on its own,” he said.
Still, Clara Belle Wheeler, the Republican member of the elections board, said there’s something troubling about deciding an important matter by trivial means.
“It’s almost . . . I don’t want to say capricious, but arbitrary,” she said. “The speaker of the House will be determined by a person pulling a name out of a hat, [that] seems disrespectful to the people who need representation.”
“But,” she added, “we have no other choice.”
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.