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A plastic milk bottle, 2 numbered balls and some luck settled an election tie

Updated 4:14 PM ET, Tue December 10, 2019

(CNN) - Spokane County Election Auditor Vicky Dalton put two numbered balls into a brown plastic milk bottle on Monday, shook it and then poured it until one of the balls clattered onto the counter in her office.

That moment decided who would win a vacant seat on the town council in Fairfield, Washington.

Candidates Steven Walk and Dave Watling each got 78 votes in the November 5 election.

There was a mandatory recount, but the result was unchanged when Spokane County Election officials finished tabulating the ballots by hand.

Washington state law calls for election ties to be settled by drawing lots, which is defined as a game of chance.

"It has to be something that has no skill, so a game of poker would not be acceptable because there is skill involved," Dalton told CNN.

Walk was there to watch, Dalton said, along with members of the media, an observer from the local Republican Party and two curious county employees. Watling had planned to attend, but wasn't feeling well, she said.

Walk's ball fell out. He was declared the winner.

"It's kind of crazy. It's no different than just putting two names in a hat and somebody pulling a name out," Walk told CNN affiliate KXLY. "It's just kind of weird to see that that's how it all came about."

The election game

Random lotteries and other games of chance have a long history in American politics.

In 2017, Virginia used a law dating back to 1705 to decide the race between Republican David Yancey and Democrat Shelly Simonds, who both received 11,608 votes. Yancey won the seat in the House of Delegates when officials pulled his name out of a ceramic bowl.

Simonds ran against Yancey again in November and beat him by more than 3,400 votes.

Coin flips, poker hands and other crazy ways America settles tied elections

Other races have been decided with random games like coin flips, pulling a high card from a deck or drawing straws.

Dalton said Spokane County has been using the milk bottle for 17 years. She said it was last used to break the tie in a 2013 council race in nearby Latah.

"It cost us all of two dollars at a billiards supply store," she said. "It works beautifully and it's totally random."

Dalton said that there were 28 undervotes from people who cast their ballots, but didn't vote in the council race -- any one of them could have decided the election.

"It just points out how important every single vote truly is in any election," she said.


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