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Things get Biblical when there’s a tie in Pennsylvania elections

All across the country, when elections are tied states have many ways to pick a winner. A recount. A milk jug and two marbles.

Voters wait outside a polling place during last year's general election in Fulton County in south central Pennsylvania,
Voters wait outside a polling place during last year's general election in Fulton County in south central Pennsylvania,Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

A jug and some numbered balls could decide a deadlocked council election in a rural Pennsylvania town’s council race and that’s perfectly normal.

As election season winds down and candidates in tight races slowly concede or demand recounts, there’s at least one rare race in the commonwealth that’s tied with no votes left to count. It’s happening in Ridgway, a borough of 3,700 in rural Elk County, where Republican Brent Kemmer and Democrat Joe Gasbarre both wound up with 525 votes, according to the Ridgway Record.

Elk County’s director of elections, Kimberly Frey, said the winner will be decided on Nov. 19th by the “casting-of-lots,” a Biblical term that describes an unbiased and impartial way to make a choice or, in the case of elections, break a tie. In Elk County, Frey said the process consists of two balls marked with a “1″ and “2″ — she described them as marbles — being chosen out of something akin to a milk jug.

“I’ve been at this job for 30 years and this thing’s been here much longer than that,” Frey said of the jug.

Going alphabetically by first name, Kemmer will choose first. If he selects the “1″ ball, he wins. If the ‘’2″ ball comes out, Gasbarre wins.

The casting of lots is, by law, Pennsylvania’s way of breaking an election tie. It’s also how ballot positions are chosen during primaries. The election code only determines where and when the casting should take place for tie breakers, but doesn’t offer specifics on the process, whether dice can be rolled, for instance, or names chosen from a hat.

In 2018, that’s how a tie was broken in a key Virginia House of Delegates race, when Republican David Yancy faced off against against Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds. Yancy’s name, according to the New York Times, was chosen out of a “blue and white stoneware bowl.”

In New Jersey, Alicia D’Alessandro, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Elections, said a tied election means there’s no winner and a do-over election follows. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states call for a new election after a tie. Pennsylvania is one 28 states that resolve ties by “drawing of lots or other random methods.” The rest often leave it up to governors, the board of elections, or their state legislatures to figure out the winner.

Frey, of Elk County, said ties aren’t that uncommon in smaller municipal elections. It happened there in 2015, when two Republicans tied during a primary.

“It’s a fair way to pick a winner,” Frey said.

In Marion City, Iowa, two mayoral candidates are deadlocked as well. One name will be chosen from a hat there, according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, but each candidate said he will request a recount if his opponent’s name is chosen.

Larger, national elections rarely end in ties, but at least one may have helped fuel a famous rivalry that led to a shooting death. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each tallied the same number of electoral votes. Alexander Hamilton helped Jefferson, his rival, defeat Burr, a bigger rival, during the House of Representatives vote.

Jefferson became president. Burr later shot and killed Hamilton during their infamous duel in New Jersey.

In Ridgway, Elk County, neither deadlocked candidate could be reached for comment.