Think your vote doesn’t matter? Gather ’round, dear readers, and hear a true tale of three elections: Two ties and a single vote win – out of 12,637 ballots cast.
The election lost to sleeping in
Once upon a time, in Walton, Kentucky, Bobby McDonald tossed his hat in the ring for the city council. So did Olivia Ballou.
After the votes were tallied on Nov. 6, 2012, McDonald and Ballou had 669 ballots apiece.
“There’re many ways you can tie,” McDonald lamented to National Public Radio’s Brent Baughman. “But in my situation, I let my wife sleep in and not go vote that day. And she’s mad at me cause I did not wake her up.”
Both McDonalds had jobs. He ran the family-owned campground. She logged long hours at a local hospital and was studying to be a nurse. They also had three kids.
“She had just worked her first-ever, four-day, 12-hour-plus shift,” he told the NPR reporter. “Plus, she’s doing her last couple months of nursing school. So she pretty much counts the hours that she sleeps on one hand. I thought I was being the nice guy letting her sleep in.”
What was it Mark Twain supposedly said? “No good deed goes unpunished”?
Anyway, McDonald figured he was “well-known enough — campaigned enough, talked to enough people — that I didn’t need to interrupt her sleep to get elected. But I did.”
There’s a tie-breaker provision in Kentucky election law: “The county board of elections of the candidate’s residence shall issue certificates of election where the successful candidate was voted for by the electors of a city or school district whose boundaries extend beyond those of a single county. The board shall forward the certificate to the elected candidate. If the board finds that two (2) or more candidates have received the highest and equal number of votes for the same office, the board shall determine by lot which of the candidates is elected.”
“By lot” usually means flipping a coin.
The story of the candidate and his slumbering spouse spread far beyond Walton. In northernmost Kentucky, Walton is one of Boone County’s oldest communities. (A small part of the town has spread eastward into Kenton County.)
McDonald was in Huffpost and USA Today and on Fox News. Anderson Cooper Live called. Baughman’s interview with McDonald was broadcast nationally on NPR's All Things Considered.
McDonald was philosophical about the media attention. “… I think this is just my 15 minutes of fame, and it’s going to run out eventually.”
He told Baughman he planned to use “that 15 minutes to lobby for early voting in Kentucky.” You can do so now, but not because of McDonald's mishap.
Meanwhile, on Nov. 20, McDonald, 27, and Ballou, 25, traveled to Burlington, the Boone County seat, for the coin toss. They met in the office of County Clerk Kenny Brown. A 1964 Kennedy half-dollar would be the tie-breaker, wrote the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Mark Hansel.
McDonald got to call it because he registered to run in the nonpartisan race before Ballou did.
He called it “tails.” It was heads.
Ballou promptly declared she didn’t want the job. “My husband got a job, so we will be selling our house and relocating,” Hansel quoted Ballou, who was working on a master’s degree. “We’re going to put our house up in January, so we didn’t want to take the seat and put my house up the same month that I would start on city council.”
“The newly elected city council is scheduled to take office in January and until Ballou chooses not to be sworn in, she remains the sixth elected member of that body,” Hansel explained. “If she is not sworn in, the seat will be vacated and the newly elected council will have 30 days to choose a replacement.”
When the council collectively swore the oath of office, Ballou was absent. So they tapped McDonald.
Now what was the name of that famous Shakespearean comedy? Right. All’s Well that Ends Well.
Wet, dry, and tied
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, anything but a comedy, Hamlet declares, “To be, or not to be, that is the question.”
“To booze or not to booze” was the question on the ballot on Nov. 6, 2018, in Buckhorn, a community in Perry County, in southeastern Kentucky. In that local option vote, Buckhorn, as a precinct, voted to keep banning beer, wine, and spirits. But the vote to permit alcohol sales at Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park was deadlocked at 155, according to Lexington-based WTVQ TV.
Bring on the decider coin.
“Dry” forces hoped the requisite toss would mean nothing stronger than water, coffee, tea, milk, and soda pop would remain on the drinks menu at the park. “Wets” were all set for suds, vino, and hooch.
Both sides gathered on Nov. 8 at the old courthouse in Hazard, the county seat. “Heads meant wet, tails meant dry,” WTVQ reported. “The coin landed heads-up.”
And the one-vote winner
Meanwhile, a coin toss was narrowly averted on election day 2018 in western Kentucky's 13th state House district. Democrat Jim Glenn unseated Republican state Rep. D.J. Johnson by the thinnest of margins. Both lived in Owensboro, the Daviess county seat and the district’s main town.
The tally was Glenn 6,319, Johnson, 6,318.
The story made the national news. “No one knows who cast the crucial vote in the 13th District,” wrote The Washington Post's Lindsey Bever, “but Glenn said more than two dozen people had approached him since Nov. 6 ‘and told me that they were the one vote that I won by.’”
A footnote: On May, 27, 1981, when I was a feature writer for the Paducah Sun, I covered a tie-breaker to determine the victor in a Ballard County Democratic primary race. Fifth District Magistrate Juett Owens Jr. and challenger James Campbell ended up dead even — each with 480 votes — in balloting the day before.
But the procedure in the county clerk's office in Wickliffe, the Jackson Purchase county's seat, would be more than a coin call-and-flip. “Heads” and “tails” were printed on scraps of adding-machine paper and drawn by the candidates from a baseball cap.
Election Commissioner Morris Rudolph would flip a quarter, and the candidate with the slip that matched how the coin fell would be the victor. Campbell had heads. The quarter landed tails.
Twenty years before, the same procedure was used to break a tie in the primary for the same office, said Sheriff Bob Taylor. Harry Lane Sr. and William Robert Carpenter both polled 411 votes. Lane won the toss and the election.
“The odds of this happening twice have to be a million to one,” Rudolph told me for my story.