Ties, turnout and timing

Published 2:31 pm Monday, December 11, 2017

Polk elections director shares details of election law for close races

COLUMBUS – Polk County Commissioners learned this week that determining elections by “lot,” or a random method such as a coin toss, is regulated by state statute in more election cases than first thought.

Columbus Town Council candidates Mark Phillips and Brent Jackson recently asked commissioners to sponsor a resolution to get the state law changed after Phillips won the election over Jackson by just three votes. The actual results weren’t known for 10 days after the election when three provisional votes were counted. The race very easily could have been a tie and if it had been, the race would have been determined by lot per state statute, such as flipping a coin or drawing a name out of a hat.

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Polk County Board of Elections Director Cliff Marr reviewed some laws with commissioners during the county’s Monday, Dec. 4 meeting.

Marr said no matter what type of election, there are no third primary elections following a second. According to North Carolina statutes, in the case of a tie in a second primary, the parties would decide who they want to move forward in the general election. The reason is time, low turnout and costs, Marr said. He said there is usually a 3-5 percent turnout in second primaries.

Municipal elections are not the only elections that are determined by lot in case of a tie. Marr said in elections where there are 5,000 or more votes cast, there will be a runoff, but 5,000 or fewer votes will be determined by lot.

Marr also reviewed the four types of elections municipalities can choose in their charters to have, including partisan primary and election, nonpartisan primary and election, nonpartisan plurality (most common) and nonpartisan election and runoff.

A partisan primary and election holds primaries in September and the general election in November. Ties are resolved in the same manner as a state partisan election with primary ties being determined by the party executive board and election ties being determined by lot or a new election based on the 5,000 votes or more threshold.

A nonpartisan primary and election method of elections has the primary in October and the general election in November. A primary tie is determined by lot and a general election winner will also be determined by lot.

A nonpartisan plurality election, which is the most simple method that the Towns of Columbus and Tryon and City of Saluda currently use, has the general election in November and any ties are determined by lot.

A nonpartisan election and runoff has the election in October and a runoff in November if needed. The winner must exceed the majority threshold or a runoff takes place. If there is a tie in the runoff, the winner will then be determined by lot.

Marr also reviewed recent municipal election results from both the 2015 and 2017 elections.

There were 69 cities across the state that had mayor or council races decided by five or fewer votes in 2015; 31 cities had mayor or council races decided by one vote; and five cities had ties with four determined by a coin flip and one by drawing a name from a box.

In 2017, Columbus Town Council’s third seat was determined by three votes. Another council seat in Saluda was determined by four votes. There were three other cities in 2017 where races were determined by one vote, including Spruce Pine, St. Pauls and Biscoe, according to Marr.

In 2017 there were two ties in council races with Garland, N.C. determining a tie by drawing colored pens, with the color purple winning, and in Manteo, N.C. the winner was determined by a coin toss.

“In a municipal election, it’s not uncommon to have a tie or low vote differences between candidates,” Marr said.

Marr said there is no perfect election system and the current legal climate is trending towards fewer elections, not more. Marr also asked if the tie is the issue or is the turnout the issue. Columbus had a 20.9 percent voter turnout this year, with 164 residents casting votes. Phillips won the council seat with 79 votes compared to Jackson’s 76 votes.

Marr said an election is more likely to have a tie in a low turnout and one way to address the risk of a tie is to increase voter turnout.

He said the municipalities can change the election type from a plurality to election and runoff system but the election would be held in October, which could hurt voter turnout.

Marr also said it’s not simple to put on another election. He said they take time and can be difficult depending on when that person is supposed to begin the seat. Marr said the elections office has to give time for absentee and military ballots and the public has to be informed. Winners of municipal elections in Polk County are sworn into office in December.

Commissioners had discussed sponsoring a resolution during its Nov. 20 meeting when approached by Phillips and Jackson but did not mention any course of action following Marr’s presentation.