June 13, 2012 -- The town of Webster, Texas, is rolling the dice on its newest city council member. Literally.
After Diana Newland and Edward Lapeyre each won 111 votes in a runoff election Saturday and a recount confirmed the result yesterday, Texas election code forced the two to "cast lots." A nearby pair of dice settled the matter: Newland rolled a five, while Lapeyre came up short with a four.
"It seemed odd, but after discussing it [with Lapeyre], we were just ready to get it over with," Newland said, adding that her opponent was gracious about his misfortune. "I could not have gone out and campaigned a third time, and we had already gotten people to come out twice, bless their hearts."
The decisive roll followed two failed attempts. Lapeyre's first roll skipped off the table, and the city secretary had decreed beforehand that a do-over would be triggered by that outcome. When the second throws yielded a tie, Newland said she became "frayed around the edges."
But the third roll ended a race that Newland said had the town of 10,000 abuzz with anticipation since Saturday's inconclusive runoff.
Lapeyre did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
While the tiebreaker was a first for Webster, it was not the first time an election has been left to chance in Texas. In nearby Seabrook, a dice roll determined the second participant in a recent city council runoff. Last month, a coin toss decided the mayoral election in the Panhandle's Wolfbrook. In the Lubbock suburb of Wolfforth, the top two candidates in a city council election agreed to flip a coin instead of competing in a runoff, to save the town $10,000.
In Woodland, Wash., a high school class president flipped a coin in front of a gym packed with students to decide a tied city council race last year.
Sometimes tiebreakers go beyond the traditional dice roll or coin toss. A 2004 election in White Pine County, Nev., went to the candidate who drew the high card from a deck. In 2005, a North Pelham, N.Y., election was decided by drawing straws. In perhaps the most novel tiebreaker in recent history, a Wyoming legislative race was settled by picking ping pong balls out of a cowboy hat.
Breaking election ties with games of chance is not a new phenomenon, said Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine. When votes fail to determine a winner, he said, rolling the dice is a fast and fair solution.
"You need to have some method of tiebreaking, and what could be fairer than chance?" he said.
Randomized tiebreakers may undermine the winning candidate's legitimacy, said Indiana University law professor Michael Pitts, but their rarity and tendency to take place at a local level limits their impact on public confidence. And when nothing is guaranteed about a repeat runoff except the cost of administrating it, a game of chance is an appealing option, he said.
Pitts said he has heard of a handful of elections decided by chance every year, though the practice has not been systematically studied.