When Every Vote Really Counts

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

One of the smaller contests on Election Day this week was the mayoral showdown in Bradenton Beach, Florida, a town of about 1,500 people near Sarasota. After both a machine recount and a manual recount confirmed a 195-195 vote tie between Mayor Jack Clarke and his challenger William Shearon, the supervisor of elections turned to a deck of cards. When Shearon drew an ace of clubs, beating Clarke’s ten of clubs, he became the new mayor. You can watch the fateful draw here.

Back in 2012, Henry Grabar wrote a piece for us on the practice of drawing lots to decide an election:

Allowing chance to enter the core of a democratic system seems counterintuitive, although it’s widely recognized today as an electoral tiebreak. In fact, the roots of election by lottery stretch back to ancient Athens. (Modern-day Americans aren't the first people to be wary of the method; it was also used by sorcerers to predict the future. “Sorcery” comes from the Latin sors, meaning “lot.”) More recently, coin tosses have broken ties in New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri, Washington, Florida, Minnesota and New Hampshire. South Dakota and Arizona have used card games. In Virginia, the winner has been chosen from a hat.

As Yoni noted recently, sometimes an election doesn’t need a tiebreaker because it only has a single voter.