It helps that it happened in a small Arizona town, in the desert, with a colorful name. You cannot imagine such a thing happening in Yonkers, New York, nor in West Bend, Wisconsin.
A deadlocked election for the Cave Creek city council came down to a draw from a deck of cards, a poker deck carefully shuffled by a robed judge.
Adam Trenk and Thomas McGuire, both in blue jeans and open-collar shirts, strode nervously into Town Hall with their posses. There stood the town judge. He selected a deck of cards from a Stetson hat and shuffled it — having removed the jokers — six times.
Mr. McGuire, 64, a retired science teacher and two-term incumbent on the Town Council, selected a card, the six of hearts, drawing approving oos and aws from his supporters.
Mr. Trenk, 25, a law student and newcomer to town, stepped forward. He lifted a card — a king of hearts — and the crowd roared. Cave Creek had finally selected its newest Council member.
“It’s a hell of a way to win — or lose — an election,” Mr. McGuire said. Still, it was only fitting, Mr. McGuire and others here said, that a town of 5,000 that prides itself on, and sometimes fights over, preserving its horse trails, ranches and other emblems of the Old West would cut cards to decide things. A transplant of 10 years from Yorktown Heights, N.Y., north of New York City, Mr. McGuire said he knew things were different here when not long after arriving he walked into a bar and found a horse inside.
Marshall Trimble, a cowboy singer, folklorist and community college professor who serves as Arizona’s official historian, said, “We are pretty tied to our roots here, at least we like to think so.”
Hans Zinnser, in the venerable Rats, Lice and History, relates the story of an eastern European town where such ties are broken by lice — the two candidates put their beards on a table, and a louse is placed between the men. The man whose beard the louse chooses is the winner.
Of course, this makes it difficult for women to participate in government fully.
Cave Creek is a typical cowboy, American town. Deadlocks in government can be resolved by a game of chance.
Government teachers, history teachers, go get this story and clip it – it’s a good bell ringer, if not a full lesson in democratic republican government.
So, as the state’s Constitution allows, a game of chance was called to break the deadlock. The two candidates agreed on a card game (alternatives from the past have included rolling dice and, on rare occasions, gunfights).
Mr. Trimble said a cutting of the cards or roll of the dice had decided ties a handful of times in Arizona local elections. Tie-breakers have also been tried in other states, including in recent years in Alaska and Minnesota, said Paul Fidalgo, a spokesman for FairVote, a Washington group that monitors and advocates for fair elections.
Mr. Fidalgo said the group objected to random chance as the decider of election outcomes.
“Definitely not a democratic ideal, to say the least,” he said, suggesting, among other ideas, that the tied candidates engage in one more runoff.
That was ruled out here as too expensive, and besides, this was much more fun, as Mayor Vincent Francia made clear, clutching a microphone and serving as M.C.
“Originally we thought of settling this with a paintball fight but that involves skill, and skill is not allowed in this,” Mr. Francia said to laughter.
Did you ever think that the ability to shuffle a deck of cards would be a job skill for a judge? There’s a reason law students play poker in the coffee lounge, and all weekend!
- Story from KPHO Channel 5 News, in Phoenix, with link to a great video (how can you capture the video for classroom use?)
- AZ Central (Arizona Republic) story on the council meeting – approval of a 128,000 square-foot WalMart store was on the first agenda after the card shuffle decision
- Story from ABC affliate, Channel 15
- Politico report
- “Mathematics of a tied election,” from Cox News, 2000
- Lahood Productions’ 2004 election coverage — story of a deck of cards deciding an election in New Mexico in 1998
- Gateway to state election codes, from the National Center for State Courts
- Arizona election code; provision for breaking a tie by lot