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Alabama Proposes Randomly Deciding Tied City Elections

The state currently allows county and statewide elections that end in a tie vote to be decided using random choice, instead of by special election or second runoff. A proposed law would apply the same rule to municipal elections.

(TNS) — Johnny Hamlin isn’t sure what happens if a strange three-way tie occurs during the May 24 Republican primary for Clay County, Ala., Sheriff.

Less than four years ago, his two opponents – James “Jim” Studdard and Henry Lambert – flipped a coin to break a 2,680-vote tie. Studdard won and became the sheriff. He is now being challenged again by Lambert.

“They are still talking about that coin toss,” said Hamlin, the third candidate in the GOP race. “If it goes to a three-way tie, I don’t know, will we have an arm-wrestling match?”

Alabama state law allows county and state elections, ending in a tie vote, to be decided by drawing lots or similar random methods. Arm-wrestling is unlikely, and so is a second runoff.

‘Quite Expensive’

But state law does not require the same in municipal races or runoffs whenever a tie occurs. A special election, or a second runoff, would take place.

Alabama legislation, introduced this session, would make the municipal elections consistent with state and county contests.

“It can be quite expensive, and you have to open the (polling sites) in that district, and get all of the poll workers,” said state Rep. Sam Jones, D- Mobile, who is the sponsor of HB144, which eliminates the requirement of a second or a runoff election when only two candidates are seeking office and finish in a tie vote.

“Because it’s so rare for this to happen, then casting lots seems to be more appropriate,” Jones said.

Jones said the legislation is backed by Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who is leaving office later this year.

Merrill said the advantage of HB144 is to save on the costs of a municipality holding a special election. A fiscal note attached to the bill says that a cost savings would be realized through HB144, but an exact amount was “undetermined.”

The estimate to hold a special election in Mobile, for instance, is around $134,000.

The bill is awaiting consideration before a Senate committee, and Merrill said he is hopeful it gets a hearing this week.

“We always think it’s better to be prepared for things like this than wondering how you address them (if the issue surfaces),” Merrill said. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted to act on this before leaving office.”

‘Random Selection’

Jones, former mayor of Mobile, said he’s never seen a special runoff contest resulting from a tied vote.

It’s happened before, especially in smaller cities where fewer people vote in municipal contests.

State Rep. Jamie Kiel, R- Russellville, said he believes it’s worth having a second election to break the tie votes.

He cited a race for the Russellville City Council that ended in a 154-154 tie between incumbent William Nale and challenger Darren Woodruff during the August 25, 2020, municipal elections. The tie-vote triggered a special election that was scheduled in October, which Woodruff won.

“I would not want an important local race to be decided by another local official or in some random selection process,” said Kiel, one of only three state lawmakers who voted against HB144 last month. “I believe that the citizens should make the decision on who best represents their interests.”

‘Game of Chance’

Alabama is one of 28 states that determine winners of election ties by drawing of lots for state and county contests, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Florida, Kentucky, and Mississippi have similar structures.

Another 14 states require a new election whenever a tie occurs. Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, and South Carolina have a second election. A tie vote in Texas triggers a recount, and then a special election if the race is still tied.

Merrill said it’s up to the candidates and the county sheriff to decide what kind of random game unfolds to decide the election winner.

“It could be a roll of a dice, high card, or rock-paper-scissors,” said Merrill. “The sheriff is the one responsible for flipping the coin.”

Under HB144, the probate judge would be charged with overseeing the random game. If the probate judge openly took part in the campaign of one of the candidates involved in the tied outcome, then the presiding circuit court judge “breaks the tie by lot.”

In the 2018 Clay County contest, Lambert lost the race by calling out the wrong side of the flipped coin.

Merrill also said that candidates are allowed to set up the parameters of the random game.

“If I were in it, what I would have preferred is a best two-out-of-three attempts at the coin flip,” he said. “That way, you get to have one person call heads and the other person calls tails each time. And then you do a third one and that would be it. But in Clay County, they did it one time.”

Some tiebreakers can get complicated. In Neptune Beach, Florida, a 2014 council contest was decided when one of the two candidates’ names was drawn out of a hat. From there, the winner of that drawing got to call heads or tails during the subsequent coin flip. The winner of the coin toss then got to choose who would go first or second in a random drawing of numbered ping-pong balls.

“I would have done a coin flip because if it’s good enough for the Super Bowl, it’s good enough for me,” said Rory Diamond, the loser of the ping-pong drawing told the media at the time.

Hamlin, the Clay County sheriff hopeful, said he thinks a repeat of 2018′s tied vote is a long shot, but should not be discounted.

“I guess we do it like the old cowboy days and like Clint Eastwood by standing out in the cemetery to see who can draw the fastest,” Hamlin jokingly said. “That would be a real game of chance.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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