For centuries, humans have devised various ways to choose a winner and a loser between competitors who, after the competition concludes, are neither of those things.
On Thursday in Richmond, after much drama, Virginia state elections officials reached into a stoneware bowl, pulled out a name and declared Republican incumbent David Yancey the winner of a pivotal tied House of Delegates race.
The outcome could determine whether Republicans maintain their majority in the chamber, 51 to 49. But the loser of the drawing, Democrat Shelly Simonds, is entitled by law to request another ballot recount, leaving the whole matter in limbo again. If Simonds somehow prevails, then the house’s membership would be — wait for it — tied.
Much ado has been made about the way Virginia state law requires a deadlocked election to be decided, but the method, in fact, is neither unusual nor anywhere close to the most peculiar in history.
In Nevada, a 2002 tied election was settled with, appropriately, the draw of a card. In Mississippi, they used straws in 2015. In Wyoming, an entire town had to re-vote for mayor in 2010, despite one of the candidate’s insistence that it be left to chance.
“I would’ve been content with flipping a coin,” mechanic Morgan Irene told the Casper Star-Tribune. “I feel like the Lord would make sure that the right thing happens.”
Perhaps no place has come up with a more convoluted way to resolve a split election than a small city in Florida, which should come as a surprise to no one. (Note: The author grew up there, so he’s allowed to say that.)
In 2014, Neptune Beach City Council candidates Rory Diamond and Richard Arthur were each tied at 1,448 votes. This is how FiveThirtyEight explained what happened next:
To break the tie, Diamond’s name was drawn from a bag by a third party. This allowed Diamond the chance to call the coin toss. He won the toss by calling heads. Because of this, he could decide whether to draw first or second from a bag of ping-pong balls, numbered one through 20. He deferred to Arthur, who drew No. 12. The ball was replaced, and Diamond then drew No. 4. Arthur won the seat.
In other words, Diamond and Arthur played three games of chance. Each game provided 50-50 odds to each man. Diamond won two of the games, but Arthur won the seat because the third game was the only one that mattered.
Got it? Yeah, me neither.
Likely no tied vote in American history was more significant than the one that occurred 24 years into the country’s existence. Back then, according to the National Archives, members of the electoral college could vote for two different presidential candidates on each ballot, and in the election of 1800, both Thomas Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, who intended to serve as vice president, received 73 votes.
That left the decision to the House of Representatives, but their own vote ended in a tie 35 straight times before the election was settled on the 36th ballot. The Constitution was later amended to separate votes for president and vice president.
Controversy over election tiebreakers aren’t limited to American politics, though.
A 2011 race in Switzerland, in which two candidates each received 23,979 votes, was initially decided by a computer before the country’s top court rejected that method and demanded that it be left to a manual draw.
In the Philippines in 2013, the candidates in a mayoral race agreed to settle things with a coin flip — until the loser of the flip, Salvador Py, changed his mind and demanded a recount.
A story in the Philippine Star explained his irritation:
Py also said he cannot just accept that a mere flip of a coin decided his fate, adding that it was unfair after going through a lot of hardships during the campaign.
His piggery, which was once full of hogs and one of his family’s main sources of income, is now empty as he used all his pigs as part of his campaign collateral.
The many frustrations that ties wreak extend well beyond politics, especially in the United States.
How to resolve them in sports has been a point of national debate for decades.
“Politicians love to boast about American exceptionalism: how special we are from all the merely ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill countries around the globe,” the legendary Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford theorized in 2012. “However, I would say that what sets us apart, more all the time, is that we Americans don’t like ties.”
We so don’t like them that when Major League Soccer began in the 1990s, the organization initially mandated that every deadlocked game be settled with a shootout. This in a sport that embraces ties essentially everywhere else on Earth.
The folks who run the Scripps National Spelling Bee (whether that’s a sport is a topic for another story) grew so tired of having co-champions that they rewrote the rules for 2017 to make draws much more unlikely.
College football games used to end in ties, but they’re now settled in overtime periods that sometimes go on for hours. In golf, those tied at the end of the U.S. Open must come back the next day and play 18 more holes. At Wimbledon in 2010, it took more than 11 hours, stretched across three days, to break a tie — and, naturally, an American won.
In 2014, a tie in a college basketball game was nearly decided by a coin toss.
Johnson C. Smith and Winston-Salem State were even at 76 with 0.3 seconds left when a player launched a full-court shot that shattered two overhead lights, making it too dangerous for the game to continue. Winston-Salem, the visiting the team, could have left the outcome to chance, but instead elected to make the 90-minute drive back two days later to play a five-minute overtime. (They won.)
And, of course, ties have been a part of war since war began.
The Battle of Kadesh, fought between the Egyptians and Hittites around 1275 B.C., famously ended in a draw that both sides attempted to resolve by continuing to kill one another for more than a decade, according to historians.
In March 1862, during the American Civil War, the first battle between ironclad warships also ended with no clear winner after the Union Monitor and Confederate Merrimack bombarded each other with cannon fire but failed to inflict any lethal damage. The tie, it could be argued, was broken two months later when the Rebels intentionally destroyed the Merrimack so Union soldiers couldn’t capture it.
Duels in the 17th and 18th centuries often ended without resolution when neither shooter hit the other, but in one peculiar (possibly fictitious) case, a bloodless draw didn’t suffice.
According to an oft-repeated, but now questioned, tale from 1792, a Lady Almeria Braddock suggested, over tea, that a woman with the last name of Elphinstone was double her actual age, so offending the London aristocrat that she challenged Braddock to a duel.
When each of their bullets missed, the women, dubbed the “Petticoat Duellists” by one magazine, drew swords, fighting until the offender sliced the offended on the arm, at last breaking the tie.
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