After months of campaigning and door-knocking and cold calls, these elections came down to the luck of the draw.
The race for Cook County commissioner ended in a 246-246 tie between First District candidates Frank Moe and Kristin DeArruda Wharton. Meanwhile, on the other side of the state, the mayor’s race in the town of Currie stood tied, 48 to 48, between Jebediah Malone and Eugene Short.
And in Minnesota, if the voters can’t pick a winner, state law leaves it up to blind chance.
The only way to break a Minnesota election draw is with a draw. Local governments can, and do, draw straws, draw cards, draw names out of hats and flip coins to break ties. So Monday morning, the two candidates in Cook squared off in front of a cloth bag that held two plastic board game pieces, one red and one blue. The candidate who drew the red piece would be the new county commissioner.
Moe, a former state legislator turned dog musher and environmental activist, closed his eyes, reached into the bag and pulled out one of the pieces. He held it, eyes and hands closed, until Wharton, a nurse, drew out her piece. They opened their hands and Moe heard his wife cheer. He’d pulled out the red piece and won the race, almost a week after he stopped running.
“That was interesting. I can honestly say there’s no mandate here,” said Moe with a laugh.
In Currie, a southwestern Minnesota town with a population of just over 200, city officials gathered Monday evening to flip a quarter and pick a mayor. The winner was Malone, a city councilman, firefighter and farmer making his second run for the mayor’s office. “It’s not ideal,” he said of his coin-flip victory. “But a win’s a win.”
Minnesota communities have come up with a host of colorful ways to break ties.
In 1998, the “Today Show” carried a live broadcast of the coin flip that chose the new mayor of the Iron Range town of Gilbert. Then-Secretary of State Joan Growe flipped a 1902 silver dollar and candidate Karl Oberstar Jr. won the toss, and the election.
In 2000, the two candidates for mayor in the southwestern Minnesota town of Delhi broke their 44-to-44 electoral tie by cutting a deck of cards.
Ely officials settled a tie in a school board primary by letting the candidates pull numbers out of a hat.
Coin flips chose the mayor of Goodridge in 2008, the mayor of Ely in 1992 and the mayor of Long Lake in 1986. Brooklyn Park officials tossed an Eisenhower silver dollar to break a tie between City Council candidates in 2004. Maplewood settled a tie in a City Council primary in 2003 with a coin toss.
In August, Jamal Abdulahi called heads and lost the coin toss that decided the primary race for Rosemount City Council.
“It’s kind of sad, because it’s sort of trivializing the whole process,” Abdulahi told the Star Tribune afterward. “A lot of people voted, and I don’t think anybody likes it, but it’s part of the process.”
Scrabble tiles or not?
This year’s race was the first tie in Cook County, where county auditor Braidy Powers agonized over the best tiebreaker method.
“I don’t find any guidance in statute. It just says [election officials should settle the tie] ‘by lot,’ ” Powers said. “I was thinking about the bad outcomes. What if I’m tossing the coin and I’m nervous and the thing rolls off the table and into the corner and we’ve got to crawl under the table to look at it? That would introduce an element of doubt. There seemed to be ways nervous people could mess up anything.”
Then Powers hit on what seemed like a civilized solution: Scrabble. The candidates could pull a pair of Scrabble tiles out of a bag — Z would win the election, while A would have the right to call for a recount. But then came the calls from avid Scrabble fans warning that it is possible — not easy, but possible — to tell the difference between the letters on the tiles by touch.
Rather than risk it, Powers rooted through his board games until he found a box that held smooth, featureless dice-sized plastic cubes that would work nicely for a blind drawing. He pulled out a red and a blue cube for the job.
“I thought, red, it has the same letter R as ‘winner.’ Blue, well obviously you feel blue if you lose,” said Powers, who can’t recall the name of the game that provided the lucky game pieces.
Cook County was set for a tiebreaker, except for one thing: the bag. Since the Scrabble plan had been nixed — and with it, the set’s tile bag — county workers went searching for a replacement. But the only bags anyone could find were from Crown Royal whiskey bottles. In the end, Powers said, one of his employees sewed a bag from scratch for the occasion.
To be safe, the votes were recounted immediately after the drawing but the tally remained 246 to 246, with one lone write-in.
“I felt a little deflated,” Powers said. “I’d rather have a win by the actual vote count.”