To win an election, sometimes it’s the luck of the draw

What happens when two candidates are caught in a deadlock? In some places in Canada, it results in a by-election. In others, names are pulled out of a box.

When Anne Marie Shea ran for council in a recent by-election in Kinkora, P.E.I., she figured she wasn’t the best candidate for the job—at least, not based on the current needs of the rural municipality. A volunteer in the community for years who has served on various local committees, Shea says two of Kinkora’s main short-term priorities are redoing its planning act and putting together a sewer maintenance program. That’s why she convinced Amanda Dwyer to also run for one of the two seats up for grabs, even encouraging her to put a bio up on the community Facebook page so locals knew her qualifications.

“Amanda’s worked in the pharmaceutical industry for more than 25 years, and she’s been responsible for quality oversight in Canada, the U.K. and Australia. This is what she does for a living,” Shea says. “She’s much more suited to run for council than I am.”

The two open seats would go to the top two candidates in the vote count. But after the ballots were tallied in early May, the chief administrative officer called Shea to break the news: a third candidate had received the most votes, while she and Dwyer had finished in a dead tie for the second seat. The two friends would have to wait to see who would get in.

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Ties are rare in Canada’s municipal, provincial or territorial elections and, when they do happen, the first reaction from electors is typically regret. “Some citizens reached out to say: ‘I’m sorry—I didn’t vote,’ ” says Annie Blake, an NDP candidate who ran for legislature in Yukon last month and finished a single vote shy of outright victory. “I would just tell them that it’s okay. We can’t turn back the clock.”

Former Liberal MLA Pauline Frost speaks to media outside the courthouse in Whitehorse on April 19, 2021. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

Former Liberal MLA Pauline Frost speaks to media outside the courthouse in Whitehorse on April 19, 2021 (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

How those deadlocks ultimately get broken varies widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, thanks to tiebreaking formulae that, in many places, put sheer chance ahead of the will of the voters. So it went with Blake. After a judicial recount confirmed that she and the Liberal incumbent, Pauline Frost, both finished with exactly 78 votes each in Vuntut Gwitchin, the territory’s least populous riding, the two found themselves sitting in a Whitehorse courtroom staring at a small, wooden box.

Inside were two cards, each bearing one of their names. Whoever’s name was plucked from the box would be the riding’s next MLA. “I went in a bit nervous,” recalls Blake, a member of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. “So I told myself the outcome will be whatever our ancestors want to happen.” Then she heard her name called aloud. “It took a few seconds for it to sink in. I was shocked.”

Newly elected MLA Annie Blake speaks to reporters outside the courthouse in Whitehorse on April 19, 2021. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

Newly elected MLA Annie Blake speaks to reporters outside the courthouse in Whitehorse on April 19, 2021. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

It marked the second time in the last 25 years that an NDP candidate won that riding after a draw, as Robert Bruce’s name was plucked from a hat to win the tiebreaker over the Yukon Party’s Esau Schafer back in 1996. The losing candidate that year is no stranger to Blake. “Uncle Esau is my mom’s brother,” she says.

Not every tiebreaker for provincial or territorial elections comes down to the luck of the draw. In Ontario and New Brunswick, the returning officer gets to cast the final ballot and choose a winner, raising the stakes of an otherwise functional role.

In Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, a tie results in a by-election. The same goes for British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador. Quebec also uses by-elections, most recently in 2003, when the riding of Champlain ended in a tie between the Parti Québécois candidate Noëlla Champagne and Liberal Pierre Brouillette. Champagne won the re-vote by 642. Turnout, however, had plummeted, perhaps because the Liberals had already secured a majority in the National Assembly.

But in other parts of the country, blind luck has been written into the democratic process. Nova Scotia, like the Yukon, draws the name of the winner from a box. In P.E.I., as Mary Ellen McInnis learned in 2015, seats in the provincial legislature can come down to the flip of a coin. “It was pretty intense,” says McInnis, who ran for the Progressive Conservatives. “The press wanted to know if they could come into the room during the coin toss.” Both she and Liberal incumbent Alan McIsaac agreed to keep the cameras out of the room, which was fine with the judge.

McInnis remembers the chief electoral officer giving a lengthy preamble about the importance of the coin he’d chosen for the occasion. “But I couldn’t tell you a word he said because I didn’t really care what kind of a coin he chose,” McInnis says. She does recall being assigned “heads” because her surname came first—barely—alphabetically. Then she remembers the coin going up in the air, hitting the floor and rolling around the room until it finally fell to one side: “Tails.”

Like Blake, McInnis recalls people apologizing to her over the ensuing days and weeks for failing to get to the polls that day. “I said: ‘Don’t tell me that now,’ ” she says, with a laugh. “But I didn’t mind when they told me a year later. I’m a very strong proponent that every vote counts.”

Over in Kinkora, after getting word of her tied vote count with Amanda Dwyer—and not wanting a coin toss to decide the matter—Anne Marie Shea immediately asked the chief administrative officer if she could withdraw her nomination. That wouldn’t be possible, she was told. After all, the election had already happened. “So I said: ‘How do I go about conceding?’ ”

That was allowed, so Shea immediately left for Kinkora’s municipal offices to sign the paperwork, giving Dwyer the spot on council. “She is beyond what we need from a qualifications perspective,” Shea says. And while the community was initially confused about her decision, Shea reached out to those who initially signed her nomination papers to explain why she was giving up a fifty-fifty chance at taking the seat: a flying coin is no substitute for common sense.

This article appears in print in the July 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The luck of the draw.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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