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Bingo Machines, Marbles And Cards: How Pennsylvania Breaks Tie Elections

Ben Finley
Following a recount in December 2017, elections officials in Newport News, Va., determined that two candidates had tied for a state House seat.

In a story that has drawn national attention, Virginia chose a member of its House of Delegates by randomly picking the name of a candidate Thursday.


The candidates, Republican David Yancey and Democrat Shelly Simonds, tied in the general election last November, and under Virginia elections law, state officials were required to select a winner "by lots," or chance.


At a meeting Thursday, Virginia officials displayed each candidate's name on equally-sized slips of paper. The officials put each slip into identical film canisters, and then placed the canisters in a ceramic bowl from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.


Yancey emerged as the winner after his name was removed first from the bowl.


The result keeps control of the House of Delegates with the GOP. A victory for Simonds would have split the chamber 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans.

Pennsylvania also breaks ties by casting lots, and Jonathan Marks, Commissioner of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation, says it happens with some frequency at the local level in the commonwealth.

“There were a number of counties [that] dealt with them in this past November’s election,” Marks said. “Typically, these are for lower offices – borough-level offices, precinct-level offices.”

In Philadelphia, for example, there were more than 30 ties for election board seats in November. There were 47 ties in Mercer County, all for municipal auditor and poll worker positions.

Marks noted that ties often involve write-in candidates who each score a small number of votes.

In the event of a tie, the Pennsylvania Election Code requires candidates to “cast lots” at noon on the third Friday after the election. “The one to whom the lot shall fall,” the code says, “shall be declared elected.”

In local races, the procedure takes place before county officials, and each county gets to choose its exact method for casting lots.

“You’ll have a number of cards, or in some counties, they use balls or other things that are numbered,” Marks explained, “and you’ll draw from a series of, say, cards numbered one through twenty. The candidate with the lower number will be considered the winner.”

Other tools include bingo machines, marbles and tokens.

Allegheny County uses a leather shaker bottle with wooden pellets numbered 1 through 51, according to Elections Division Manager Mark Wolosik. The candidate who picks the highest number wins.

While Pennsylvania’s process for breaking ties could potentially reduce months of campaigning to a game of chance, Marks thinks most candidates have accepted it. They understand, he said, that it’s the law.

Still, he noted that other places hold runoff elections to break ties.

The Pennsylvania legislature has occasionally considered switching to run-off elections, Marks said, but hasn’t yet passed a law to do so.