On January 4, people across Virginia watched an important state election get decided in a very unusual way. With news cameras rolling, an election official reached into a bowl, pulled out one of the two names inside, and announced the winner: David Yancey.
The drawing was the culmination of a two-month battle in a neck-and-neck race between Republican incumbent Yancey and Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. After a recount and a court ruling, the candidates found themselves with 11,608 votes apiece. And according to Virginia state law, tied elections must be settled by "lot," or a drawing.
The nail-biter of a race is a reminder, says political analyst Quentin Kidd of Christopher Newport University in Virginia, that just one vote can decide an election's outcome.
"I've never had as many conversations with people who are thankful that they voted--or are really upset that they didn't--than I've had since this particular tied election," Kidd says. "It really does drive home the importance that every vote counts."
Too Close to Call
For many Americans, Virginia's election cliff-hanger brought back memories of the 2000 U.S. presidential election. That famous race--between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore--came down to a difference of just 537 votes out of almost 6 million cast in Florida. With Bush ahead in that state and the results challenged in lawsuits, the U.S. Supreme Court halted a recount there, effectively awarding Bush the state and the presidency.
While nowhere near as far-reaching as a presidential race, the stakes in Virginia were high. Yancey's win allows Republicans to retain control of the Virginia House by one seat. If Simonds had won, the chamber would have been split 50-50. And it all came down to one questionable ballot.
"This is right up there with Bush v. Gore in my opinion in terms of the unbelievable sequence of events that have led us to where we are," says Rebecca Green of William & Mary Law School in Virginia.
A first count of ballots showed that Yancey had won by 10 votes. But Simonds asked for a recount. And in the second count, she gained 11 votes--making her the winner by one ballot.
But the next day, a three-judge panel, upon reviewing the recount, allowed an additional, contested ballot to be counted for Yancey. That ballot had the names filled in for both candidates but a slash mark through Simonds's name. The race was declared dead even--and Virginia held its first tiebreaker in decades.
While a random drawing may seem like an arbitrary way of deciding something as important as a political race, many experts say it's actually the fairest way to break ties.
"Some people might argue that an [election] redo would make more sense, but you would end up getting people who didn't vote the first time voting in the second race," Kidd says. "That seems less fair than simply breaking the tie by chance."
In fact, choosing public officials by drawing has a long history. In ancient...