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Colored pens and coin tosses used to settle tied elections

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By MARTHA WAGGONER
Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - In Manteo, North Carolina, population about 1,400, the vote for one town commission post was so close that it took nearly three weeks, two recounts, a drawing of straws and a coin toss to settle the election.

The town in coastal Dare County is among several in North Carolina where elections were decided by just a few votes or ended in a tie, demonstrating once again an old political truism.

"This is proof that every vote is important," said Dare County elections director Michele Barnes.

In places like Manteo, no one is challenging the election results, even though not everyone is happy with them or the method used to determine the winner.

But in others, the circumstances surrounding close races have spurred legal challenges. That's the case in Sharpsburg, which lies 140 miles west of Manteo in three counties: Nash, Edgecombe and Wilson. Mayoral candidate Robert L. Williams Jr. lost by three votes, 139-136.

Williams, represented by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, alleges in a complaint that the Wilson County Board of Elections provided only 12 ballots in the Sharpsburg election precinct where 349 voters are registered. Just 71 ballots, or 20 percent, were cast in that precinct.

In all three counties, 276 of 1,213 registered voters cast a ballot, a turnout of less than 23 percent.

It took more than two hours for election officials to deliver more ballots, by which time voters had left and couldn't return, the complaint says. The majority of those turned away are African-Americans, Williams said. The Wilson County Board of Elections will hold a hearing Dec. 14 on the complaint.

A study conducted by Democracy North Carolina of the November 2015 elections identified 69 cities where the mayor or a town council member won election by five or fewer votes. In 31 cities, elections were determined by one vote. Coin tosses broke ties for town council rates in Sparta, West Jefferson, Clarkton and Godwin, while the winner's name was drawn from a box in Dover.

The candidates who tied in Garland put colored pens in box, and the elections board chair picked the winner - in this case, the purple pen.

That's legal in North Carolina. State law says when a vote ends in a tie, county election boards "shall determine the winner by lot."

Three communities gave mayoral candidates one-vote victories: Spruce Pine, St. Pauls and Biscoe.

Other states have similar quirky election rules. In 2012, a candidate for a Walton, Ohio, city council race was decided by a coin toss after a tie vote when one candidate's wife didn't vote. He called tails - and lost.

And a 2002 race in Goldfield, Nevada, was settled the Old West way - by a draw of the cards.

After the Nov. 7 Manteo election, incumbent Richie Burke led incumbent Martha Wickre by two votes - 210 to 208 - for the third of three seats on the town commission. A Nov. 21 recount showed them tied at 210 each, and a second recount Monday confirmed it.

The candidates then drew straws to see who would call heads or tails. Wickre called heads and lost, making Burke the winner. Of Manteo's 1,241 voters, 424 - or 34 percent - voted, Barnes said.

"The biggest thing I have encountered is the community's outcry over the coin toss," Wickre said. "But then, it all goes down to people actually getting out and voting."

Wickre is exactly right, said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina. "The decision of one voter not to vote or which way they vote can decide who your next mayor is, can decide who your next police chief is and how your garbage gets picked up. ... Lots of decisions are made by local governments and affect people very directly." In addition, local politicians often move on to higher office.

Close elections have become the norm in Manteo. Four years ago, Wickre ousted long-time commissioner David Farrow by one vote. Farrow ran again two years later and lost to someone else - also by one vote, said Wickre and Barnes.

A tie for a Troutman Town Council seat was settled when an elections board member drew a slip of paper bearing a candidate's name from a bowl. A similar method was used to settle a tie in the race for a seat on the Pine Knoll Shores town commission. About 39 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in Pine Knoll Shores, while the turnout was just 11.7 percent in Troutman. The statewide turnout was almost 17 percent.

As for Wickre, she says she'll probably run again in two years. "It was very disappointing," she said of her coin-toss loss. "I thought I had really engaged with the town to make it better, and I had some projects I wanted to complete."

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Follow Martha Waggoner at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc

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