On Monday night, Hillary Clinton won the Iowa caucus for the first time — just barely. She won the support of moneyed influencers far more decisively; in six precincts where she and Bernie Sanders ended up with a tie, she won the coin toss that broke it every time.
The odds of that outcome? 1-64.
These games of chance didn’t have much of an impact on the race — the fate of a few county delegates did not deprive Sanders of victory — but it was a good reminder of how the footnotes of democracy leave room for randomness.
Back in 1911, a mayoral election in Canton, Ohio, was decided by a coin toss. The headline used to sum up the situation may give some comfort to the Sanders campaign. This isn’t the first time in history this same exact situation has come to pass.
As the Washington Post noted in 2014, more than half of the states in the country endorse using games of chance to break ties in elections. Plenty of other countries do the same thing; in 2013, a mayoral election in the Philippines was decided by coin toss (using bingo balls was also an option). “It was a suspense thriller,” the winner told The Wall Street Journal. It happens enough that the mere fact that gravity — or the length of straws — can grant people or jobs, or take them away, seems less like National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation and more like rote bureaucracy.
The circumstances that provoke such tiebreakers are far more amusing. A small city council race in Walton, Kentucky, ended in a tie in 2012 after one candidate’s wife slept through the election and failed to vote. Bobby McDonald called tails. The half dollar used to decide his fate landed heads-up. He later wrote to state legislators about the possibility of enacting early-voting legislation.
Why do a coin toss instead of just sending residents back to the voting booth? One, voting is expensive — especially in small towns where officials don’t make that much money or wield much influence anyway. Second, run-offs are notoriously ill-attended affairs that, given their sparse attendance, hardly seem less democratic than a coin toss. Having another elected official pick a victor doesn’t inspire fuzzy feelings, either. Back in 1999, the town of New Windsor, Maryland, had no idea what to do when two town council candidates both ended up with 178 votes. Around town, two options for resolution were being bandied about. A coin toss could work, of course. But what about tug-of-war?
Tug-of-war, sadly, never did catch on as a way to expedite democracy, which is why CNN was deprived of the opportunity to broadcast live feats of strength between Sanders and Clinton supporters.
Those Sanders partisans still sore about the fact that probability failed to work in their favor can take comfort that the practice is rarely employed in higher-stakes contexts — although Ralph Nader thought it should be. Back in 2000, when the electoral predilections of Florida were harder to read than tea leaves in a sewer, the Green Party candidate thought that the whole thing should be decided by … the flip of a coin.
A presidential coin toss could be internationally televised, and money raised from the sale of advertising could erase both sides’ campaign debts, Nader said. He said he hasn’t suggested it to Gore or Bush, though, because “it’s clear they’re going to fight this out in the courts.”
Sanders supporters aren’t the first people to get infuriated about coin tosses, either. Connecticut abolished the practice in 2007. “No candidate should have to worry that a tie would mean a coin flip, and more importantly, no voter should fear being disenfranchised,” the state’s Secretary of State said at the time. Others are just miffed that the whole enterprise sounds suspiciously like gambling. The winner of one such tiebreaker in Illinois four years ago had to make some sacrifices in order to keep the moral high ground while “tossing a coin like you used to do on a playground.”
“I don’t gamble,” he said, according to The Pantagraph. "This process here today is very clearly gambling. If I refuse to accept pay for this office, it ceases to be gambling. The office itself is a responsibility and not a thing of value.”
Just last year, a man who won a coin toss in November was incensed by the impropriety of it all. “I’m just going to try to learn any way I can to fight the hell out of it,” he said, “because it’s unfair and I think it’s illegal to gamble to decide who wins when you have a tie.”
Or these lucky officials could realize that all elections are a bit of a gamble — entrusting unknown individuals with great power only by judging the extent of their promises and the sincerity of their speeches — and that maybe we should revel in these moments that reveal how odd the whole enterprise of politics can be.