Aces high: Wisconsin municipalities smash election results to tie with gambling

Sheboygan Alder Andre Walton suspected things weren’t going well when his opponent turned over a king card.

When it was his turn, Walton shot a three. And just like that, his run was over.

But the two men were not in a casino. They were at City Hall, determining the outcome of the race for the Sheboygan District 10 Common Council seat.

After all the ballots were counted – and recounted – Walton, the incumbent, and his opponent, Joseph Heidemann, had received 403 votes each. To break the tie, City Clerk Meredith DeBruin said, the city chose an unbiased method that allowed both candidates to participate.

“We got a deck of cards that was sealed in the plastic, and we opened it up at the Board of Solicitors, took out the Jokers (and) shuffled the cards,” DeBruin said. “The contestants could choose whether they wanted the aces high or low. (We) deployed the cards for them and they both hit a card and then the high card won.”

And while that didn’t turn out in Walton’s favor, he does support the results.

“I have no doubt it was a fair process,” Walton said.

Sheboygan was one of at least six municipalities in Wisconsin in which a tie race in the April 5 election had to be broken by a game of chance.

By state law, when two or more candidates receive the same number of votes, the winner is chosen “by lot” or at random. But the state doesn’t dictate the method – it’s up to the city council of canvassers.

In most cases, election officials choose between the method of playing cards, drawing lots or drawing names on a hat. If both candidates are present, they can participate.

Walton thinks there might be a better way, perhaps one that brings voters into the tie-breaking process. And he can’t help but wonder if another method would have made a difference for him.

“I’ve never really had any luck with card games,” he said.

Heads or tails?

Tossing a coin is one of the most common methods of breaking ties, despite research showing a slight bias for the side facing the start of the toss. And even Google can do it for you.

Oneida County opted for the classic toss when District 13’s race for County Board of Supervisors deadlocked between Three Lakes residents Collette Sorgel and Brian Slizewski, with 177 votes each .

Sorgel said Oneida County Clerk Tracy Hartman believes a toss would be the fairest method.

“I was assigned heads because I was on the ballot first and Brian was assigned tails because he was on the ballot second,” Sorgel said.

When Hartman tossed the coin, it was heads and Sorgel was declared the winner.

“I kept thinking the Three Lakes people were talking, and they picked Brian and me equally,” Sorgel said. “So I felt that even if I didn’t win, we would be well represented.”

Slizewski called for a recount, which Hartman did by hand. Twice. Each time the results were the same.

“It’s such a good sign that our democracy is working. Our polls are working. That machines count the same as textbooks,” Sorgel said. “Even though it was a small subset of the whole run, it showed the system was working.”

The Village of Port Edwards also used a toss to break a tie between Caleb McGregor and Megan Duellman in the race for a seat on the Village Council when the two candidates received 135 votes.

Like Oneida County, the top ballot candidate – Duellman – was awarded heads. When the Chief Elections Inspector tossed the coin, it landed tails and McGregor won.

Village clerk Diane Tremmel said it was the first time she had to break a tie. And she stands behind the method.

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“What else can you do but another election?” Tremel said.

Luck of the draw

On election night, Delafield Alder Phil Kasun was counting on celebrating his re-election. Instead, he found himself tied 172-172 with his challenger Paul Price.

“Everyone was kind of stunned. We kept looking around, like, ‘Well, what are we doing? What are we doing?’ And what are you doing? And no one knew. We started making jokes about it,” Kasun said. “Rock, paper, scissors seemed like the thing of choice.”

Instead, the City’s Municipal Commission of Canvassers chose to draw names from a box.

“The names were put on the papers right in front of us. They were put in the box right in front of us, and (the poll worker) couldn’t see the name she was drawing.” Kasun said. “So I think that was about as fair as it gets.”

Unfortunately for Kasun, the poll worker pulled Price’s name.

“It really shows how important everyone’s vote is,” Price said. “Sometimes there’s a big landslide or something, but often times, especially in small districts without a large number of votes, your votes are critically important.”

A Kenosha County supervisors’ race also came down to picking a name from the basket when a recount left Zach Rodriguez and Alyssa Williams tied. Rodriguez, the starter, ultimately prevailed.

And the stakes can seem just as high for those tasked with picking the winner.

The village of Kronenwetter chose to draw names when there was a tie between Timothy Shaw and Danielle Bergmann for a seat on the village board.

Police Lt. Christopher Smart was chosen as an impartial party to draw the name of the police union ballot box chosen for the occasion.

“I felt a little pressure coming in, you know, thinking, ‘OK, it’s gonna come down to this,'” Smart said. “I just quickly grabbed the first one I could smell and pulled it out instead of wandering around in there for very long.”

Shaw was the lucky winner. Smart said he was confident in the simplicity of the process.

“Someone was going to lose and the one I drew was by the fate of the citizens,” he said.

“A vote makes the difference”

And while not technically a tie, the race for the Wauwatosa District 5 Common Council seat ended in a vote. On election night, District 5 candidates Sean Lowe and Rob Gustafson were tied, but an open tentative ballot on April 8 pushed Lowe ahead by a single vote.

When Gustafson called for a recount, the board of canvassers, election officials and city staff spent 12 hours sifting through more than 10,000 ballots to come to the same conclusion.

Lowe will be the first black man to serve on the Wauwatosa Common Council in its 125-year history, joining Margaret Arney, the council’s first black woman, who was also recently elected.

Although statewide data is not yet available, candidates say the extremely thin margins indicate a politically divided climate leading to highly competitive races. This is especially true in local races where there are fewer voters.

Walton, a progressive candidate, said Sheboygan’s 10th Ward is one of the most conservative districts in the city and he was encouraged to see an even split.

“While it didn’t go in my favor, it showed that if someone focuses on the issues and takes care of the needs of the district, we can make it a competitive district,” Walton said.

And Sorgel, the newly elected Oneida County supervisor, said the races were tight also underline something even more fundamental.

“Now I can say absolutely 100%: every vote counts because one more vote anyway, (my opponent) or I would have won,” Sorgel said. “One vote makes a difference.”

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