It's a toss-up: how coin flips and chance can decide elections

In a close race at the Democratic caucuses in Iowa this week, several delegates were decided by a coin toss, causing some concern on social media that the election was being left to chance. But the practice of coin tosses in elections is nothing new and has been used around the world - including in Canada.

What should determine who wins an election when voters can't?

Coin tosses were used to decide a few delegates in a close race at the 2016 Iowa Democratic caucuses. The procedure caused some alarm on social media, but coin flip tiebreakers are nothing new and have been used around the world, including in Canada. (Stephen Spillman/Lubbock Avalanche-Journal/Associated Press)

After all the door-knocking, campaigning, speeches and votes, sometimes the outcome of an election can come down to the flick of a thumb and the tumble of a coin.

In a close race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at the Iowa caucuses this week, coin tosses were used in a few precincts to break deadlocks between the two contenders for the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination.

The coin tosses caused some alarm on social media, but in the end, they did not amount to much.

"No, Hillary Clinton did not win Iowa because of a coin flip," reads a headline on CNN that was echoed by news organizations across U.S., in response to the reaction on social media.

Still, some precincts were determined by the flip of a coin. The exact number of tosses and who won them is not entirely clear, as not every Iowa precinct reports on it officially.

According to Democratic Party data amongst precincts that did keep track, Sanders won six of seven coin flips. For those precincts without such tracking, anecdotal evidence gathered by The Des Moines Register shows Clinton won five of six coin tosses in precincts different from the ones where Sanders won coin tosses.

Regardless of exact figures, social media was buzzing about the matter, concerned that coin tosses might be deciding the race in Iowa.

But the small number of county delegates who were being decided by a coin toss hold only a small role in the process that will ultimately determine the presidential nominees for the Republicans and the Democrats later this year.

In the Iowa Democratic caucuses, a proportional system is in place where state delegates are assigned based on county delegate support. Of the approximate 11,000 county delegates elected in Iowa, roughly 49.9 per cent will support Clinton and 49.6 per cent will support Sanders.

These delegates will, at a county convention, select 1,406 state delegates in a similar proportion to attend a state convention. Those states delegates will then in turn choose a proportionate number of delegates to go to the national convention in July, who will then choose the Democratic nominee.

This process means that from the Iowa caucuses, Clinton will receive about 23 votes at the national convention, whereas Sanders will receive 21. 

This also means that each county delegate represents only a very small proportion of what becomes a vote for Sanders or Clinton. Though Clinton only beat Sanders by four state delegate equivalents, the county delegates decided by coin toss do not make up that difference.

"Coin toss was a mechanism that was used to award delegates in a situation for the county delegate total that's proportional," said Donna Hoffman, head of political science at the University of Northern Iowa. "It's not the case that Hillary Clinton won the entire Iowa caucuses on the basis of a coin toss."

After a close race in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, some people questioned whether Hillary Clinton, shown with her husband Bill, won due to coin tosses. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

The coin-toss method, however, is not unique to the Iowa caucuses in American politics. Many jurisdictions at municipal and state levels rely on chance-based methods to break ties. 

In one example, a 2014 city council election in Duval County, Fla., a combination of three games of chance, including a coin toss, was used to determine the victory after a tied vote.

Hoffman said coin tosses are in place as an efficient way to decide elections.

"What other alternative do you have in those situations? You can't split a delegate. They're a person." she said. " It is simply that's the best mechanism for breaking a tie that people have come up with."

As far as the rest of the U.S. presidential campaign, Hoffman said it is not as likely coin flips will be this prominent again as results in other states will probably not be as close as Iowa.

Tiebreakers around the world

The rest of the world is not outside the bounds of using coins to make the final decision if voters cannot. For instance, in 2013, the mayor of San Teodoro, a small town in the central Philippines, was decided by a coin flip.

In Canada, coin flips have determined party candidates, as well as council seats at the municipal level

Though most provincial jurisdictions now use byelections to break ties, coin tosses have still come up in Canadian provincial elections.

P.E.I. chief electoral officer Gary McLeod holds the tiebreaker coin used in one riding during the 2015 provincial election. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

In the 2015 P.E.I. provincial election, Liberal Alan McIsaac defeated Conservative Mary Ellen McInnis on a coin-toss after a recount determined the two had tied in votes. 

The result in P.E.I., which is the only province that uses the coin toss to break ties, has caused a push from election officials for electoral reform.

P.E.I.'s chief electoral officer, Gary McLeod, has recommended changing the tiebreaker method to a byelection, which is the policy of most provinces and at the federal level.

"I feel that what's happening across Canada, and looking at other jurisdictions, that would be a more democratic way of determining a tie," McLeod said in a recent interview with CBC News.

Other methods of tiebreaking in Canada include giving the deciding vote to a federal returning officer, who would withhold his or her vote and then be able to cast the deciding vote in the case of ties. That method is used in Ontario and New Brunswick.

But McLeod notes leaving the choice to a returning officer also has its faults.

'No secrecy'

"You're running into issues where there's no secrecy of the vote. Everybody would know how that returning officer would have voted," said McLeod.

Barry Kay, a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., says the byelection tiebreaker has problems as well.

"The big one, apart from the delay is it involves cost — running another election." 

Kay added that election tiebreakers are so rare that they have not been studied.

"It doesn't happen very often — that's why we don't tend to think about these things very often. But the notion of the possibility of it occurring — if an equal number of people vote for more than one candidate — it could occur in any election."

Provincial election tiebreakers across Canada