Coin tosses and card draws. Is our democracy just a game?

By Hadley Robinson

We know Nevada’s a gambling state, but did you know elections there can be left to chance? During the Democratic caucus last weekend, multiple precincts broke a tie between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton by drawing cards. No joke. Here’s what happened.

The rules in Nevada say that each party must provide an unopened pack of cards. The deck must be shuffled seven times before a representative from each campaign draws a card. The highest card wins (and if it’s the same number, the suits have an order too.) Both campaigns notched wins this way.

Tweets from the ground in Nevada by WSJ reporter Reid Epstein and LA Times reporter Christine Mai-Duc

These games followed coin tosses in Iowa, a state Clinton won by a razor-thin margin. Early reports said Clinton won six out of six coin tosses, but officials later said that at least a dozen games of chance took place in the state, with both candidates winning some. Apparently 35 states have tie-breaking rules like this. In North Carolina, names are written on pieces of paper and drawn from a hat.

So yes, none of these coin flips or card draws determine the presidency, and needing to break a tie is very rare. But a system that leaves the decision of a tied electorate up to chance seems a bit undemocratic, doesn’t it?

Part of the issue is democracy itself — that the majority makes the decision and controls. What if there is no majority?

One option, and some states do this, is to hold another election and to keep holding elections until a winner is declared. This is expensive though, which is why many districts opt for the coin flip.

In Nevada and Iowa, a coin flip must happen because voters are technically deciding how many people to send to the county conventions on behalf of the candidates. So if one precinct in a draw has five representatives — Bernie gets two and Hillary gets two, what about the last one? Some have wondered whether you could award half a delegate, or give somebody half a vote. I’m not sure how that would work, but I think rules should be written about it. That way a tie would just be acknowledged, and that’s it.

We conducted an online poll — and our audience mostly thought ties should just be ties.

There’s also another way. At my college newspaper, the staff would meet to determine the subject of our weekly editorial. We also had to decide our take on the issue. We required that two-thirds of the staff come to an agreement. This was not always easy. But when we couldn’t agree, we kept talking about it. People brought up facts and statistics as they argued. Those Sunday meetings went late into the night, but we always got to a two-third majority eventually.

This might seem like a stretch if you’re talking about large groups of people. But ties are much more likely to happen in places where there’s a small body of people voting. In Nevada last week, one of the card draws came after a 15–15 tie. It doesn’t seem out of the question that after a lot of discussion one person could be swayed in one direction or the other.

To me, that’s democracy. It’s hard work and can take a really long time. But in the end it’s fair, and doesn’t leave choosing our leaders up to chance.

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