Winners were picked at random this week for seven deadlocked town council elections across the state.
In most of the close elections, the county Board of Election has met to hold a coin toss and determine the winner. A state law on the books since the 1970s dictates that municipal election tie votes must be determined “by lot.” County elections officials get to decide how to carry that out.
The Bladen County Board of Elections held a coin toss on Tuesday morning using board chairman Bobby Ludlum’s 1881 Morgan silver dollar. Two candidates for Clarkton town commissioner had each received 25 votes; recounting the ballots failed to break the tie.
“I figured it would be something like the Super Bowl,” said Ludlum, who’s never had to settle an election before. “Only one of (the candidates) was there, so I gave him heads and I gave the other guy tails.”
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Tails won, and incumbent Lawrence McDougald got another term. Challenger Jimmy Hudson wasn’t thrilled to see his bid for elected office end with a coin on the rug.
“I think it was unfair, illegal and everything,” Hudson said Tuesday. “The only fair way to have done it is a runoff.”
Ludlum said his board can’t legally call a runoff election. “We double- and triple-checked with the state board’s general counsel,” he said. “I don’t think anybody around the table liked doing it that way, but that’s the way the law reads.”
While the coin toss is the first that Bladen elections officials can remember, six other races in small North Carolina towns also had ties.
The same coin toss process settled contests in Godwin, West Jefferson and Sparta. For a tied race in the mountain town of Sylva, the elections board decided on a best-of-three format for the coin flipping.
Sampson County took a different approach to resolve a tie for Garland town commissioner, where two candidates each received 74 votes. The candidates selected pens of different colors, put them in a box and watched the board chairman draw one of them at random to determine the winner.
Only one tie vote wasn’t resolved by chance. Voters on Bald Head Island were split 81-81 on a referendum to borrow $10 million to build a broadband internet network. Without a majority in favor, the referendum failed.
A tied election is statistically unlikely in larger towns, but small populations and low off-year voter turnout make the split outcome more common in the state’s smallest municipalities.
In the Martin County town of Hassell, population 84, only 11 people voted. The voting settled three of the five seats. But the voting for the other two seats is a deadlock. It turned out that three people each received two write-in votes.
Martin County elections officials did not return a call seeking an update on the Hassell nail-biter.
Voter participation wasn’t uniquely low for the Clarkton election that was settled on Tuesday. McDougald and Hudson had both campaigned to help lead the two-stoplight town about two hours south of Raleigh.
With 50 of the town’s 472 voters casting ballots, turnout was about 10 percent. Durham saw a similar percentage for its municipal election this year.
Hudson said he and his neighbors were upset about Clarkton leaders’ plans to close a railroad crossing and renovate the town hall. “The commissioners were doing everything that they done, and then we were finding out after they had done it,” he said.
While Hudson said he was discouraged by the coin toss, he’s not done with local politics. “I’ll run again next time – that’s the only alternative I have,” he said.