FAIRFIELD — When the town council chairman flipped a quarter during a council meeting Wednesday night, the coin bounced once, twice and then landed on heads.
That’s how Jim Murray was seated on the town council.
“He just tossed it, and up it went,” Murray said the morning after the coin toss. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing was actually happening.”
The council resorted to the unusual method of a coin toss when it became clear that the four seated members were deadlocked in a 2-2 tie to fill the council’s fifth seat.
The toss went against candidate Tracey Stevens, who served as the council’s chairwoman last year and who is a member of the town’s budget committee. She said the process was “kind of odd,” but she will abide by it.
“They did what they thought was the best and most fair thing to do,” Stevens said. “I totally respect any decision that they made.”
Murray, who is an adviser at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences on the Good Will-Hinckley campus, said his top priority while on the council continues to be preventing any tax increases in the town.
The seat was vacated by Richard Letourneau, who beat Murray in an election to a three-year term on the council in November.
Letourneau resigned early this month, just when his term was about to begin.
Murray will serve for one year. An election will be held in November for the remaining two years on the term.
Once seated, Murray and the rest of the council members unanimously chose Andy Carlton, assistant principal at Oak Hill High School in Wales, as representative for the School Administrative District 49 board of directors.
Toss caps voting system
Before resorting to the coin toss, the council established special rules for the appointment.
Because there were three candidates — Murray, Stevens and former council member Bill Bois — and four voting members, members said it was unlikely a single candidate would receive a majority of votes.
So they unanimously passed a measure that the appointment would be made by an unusual process — first, a weighted vote system; then, if needed, a coin toss to break the tie.
The system was suggested by council member Aaron Rowden, who also proposed some added security measures to reduce the chances of cheating. Chairman Robert Sezak would assign heads and tails designations to the two candidates and toss the coin himself. In addition, Rowden stipulated that the coin must make at least one full revolution in the air in order for the toss to be official.
Rather than just casting a single vote, the council members all wrote down their first, second and third choices. Their ranked votes were tallied with a weighted system, where second-place choices counted more heavily than third place.
“In reviewing the ranked ballots, it was determined that Mr. Bois had received the least support of the three candidates, and his name was removed,” Town Manager Josh Reny said. “The second ballot resulted in a 2-2 tie for Murray and Stevens.”
Murray said Sezak assigned heads to Murray because his name came first alphabetically. Murray said he was pleased with the choice, because he had heard that heads comes up slightly more often than tails.
“I thought, I have an advantage,” he said. “When Robert tosses the coin, it bounced on the table, bounced again and landed in some paper. There was dead silence for about five seconds.”
Finally, Murray said, someone called out the result — heads.
By previous agreement, the four council members then voted unanimously to appoint Murray.
Other luck-based elections
It might seem unusual to leave such a decision up to chance, but the state government is prepared to resolve ties by a similar method, according to Raphaelle Silver, director of communications for the Secretary of State’s office, which oversees Maine’s state elections.
Silver said that if two primary candidates for state office are tied, state law dictates that the winner is chosen by lot.
That almost happened in 2008, when Melissa Walsh Innes and Kimberly McLaughlin each tallied 485 votes in the Democratic primary for the House District 107 seat representing Yarmouth.
But a hand recount showed that Walsh Innes was the winner, by one vote, a decision that was upheld by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in 2010.
Silver said that there have been no cases of an actual tie in a Maine state election in at least 19 years.
This isn’t the first time a coin toss has been used to decide a tied election. In fact, news agencies report on the phenomenon on a fairly regular basis around the world.
In November, coin tosses were used to settle a town council seat in Stoneville, S.C.; a mayorship in Albion, Idaho; and three council representatives in different villages in the Philippines, where the practice is particularly common.
Coin tosses have also been floated as a way to avoid costly re-elections when the outcome is in doubt.
In October Florida news agencies reported on a referendum that would have let close elections in the city of Ocala be decided by a coin toss; in October, voters rejected the idea at the polls.