Alba Nowlin received the final spot on the November ballot for the Rosemount City Council.
There were five candidates this year for Rosemount City Council, but only four spots. So when Jamal Abdulahi and Alba Nowlin tied in the primary with 252 votes apiece, the council had to eliminate one.
Abdulahi got heads, Nowlin tails. The coin flip came up tails.
“I had practiced flipping a coin the night before and a little bit that morning,” said Mayor Bill Droste, who, as chair of the canvassing board, was responsible for tossing the quarter that decided the race.
Election ties — and the resulting games of chance — are fairly common in small, local races. State statute calls for ties to be decided randomly: with a card game, for example, or the throw of a die.
“It’s kind of sad because it’s sort of trivializing the whole process,” Abdulahi said. “A lot of people voted, and I don’t think anybody likes it, but it’s part of the process.”
At the moment when Droste tossed the quarter, Nowlin said, she wasn’t nervous — she was excited.
“Basically my thinking was, ‘OK, if this is my turn to go the next round, it’ll be my turn. If it’s Jamal’s turn, it’ll be his,’” she said.
Not only is such a solution easy to implement, said University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs, but it avoids doubts about the fairness of the outcome. And, unlike a recount, a coin toss is cheap.
“We’ve come up with alternative measures that are not terribly expensive and get us to a resolution that works,” he said.
Abdulahi announced Aug. 18 that he won’t pursue a recount, saying it would waste city money, distract the community from more important issues and leave the candidates in limbo.
“I just didn’t think it was in the best interest of the community,” he said.
Ties are more common at the local level than at the state or national level, Jacobs said, because there are simply fewer votes — and so a greater chance of a tie.
“You’re kind of always walking the line of close elections,” he said.
In the Rosemount primary, fewer than 1,200 of about 14,000 registered voters turned out on election day. And Abdulahi and Nowlin, as the two last-place finishers, were each less than 400 votes behind the first-place finisher.
Even with high turnout, though, these races can be painfully close. In 2012, 90 percent of voters turned out for an Albertville City Council race that came down to a single contested vote. When the council couldn’t agree on whether to count a partially-filled bubble on one ballot, the race was decided with the flip of a gold dollar coin.
Larry Sorensen, the incumbent who won that coin toss, said the experience made him realize the importance of every vote.