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Man draws nine of diamonds, wins Manhattan (Beach, Minn.)

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Larson laid down his card next to incumbent mayor Allen's winning card.
The election for the mayor of Manhattan Beach ended in a tie. The board chose a card draw to decide the race. Kevin Larson laid down his card next to incumbent mayor Paul Allen's winning nine of diamonds.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

Paul Allen will keep his seat as mayor of the tiny north-central Minnesota city of Manhattan Beach thanks to the luck of the draw.

Due to a quirk of Minnesota law, ties in municipal elections must be decided "by lot" — flipping a coin, drawing straws or some other game of chance.

The card draw was used to settle an electoral tie for the Manhattan Beach mayoral race in the Nov. 6 election. Allen and challenger Kevin Larson received 23 votes apiece.

In a high-stakes moment of drama inside the cramped city hall Wednesday night, the deadlock was decided with playing cards. 

Larson extended a hand to Allen after a card draw reelected Allen mayor.
Kevin Larson extended a hand to incumbent mayor Paul Allen after a card draw that left Allen in the position of mayor.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

As cameras snapped and residents leaned in to watch, Allen and Larson each drew a card and laid them, face up, on the table. Larson had a three of hearts. Allen had a nine of diamonds.

A similar scenario played out in a few Minnesota cities this election: Maplewood officials used a coin toss earlier this week to decide a stalemated city council election. In Winona County, the city of Stockton also used a coin toss to choose its mayor after a tie vote.

Minnesota is among 27 states that settle tied elections by lot, said Tim Lindberg, assistant political science professor at the University of Minnesota-Morris. 

"The most common [method] is the one that Minnesota uses," he said. "And in many ways it probably makes the most sense, because it's the cheapest of all those ways to do it."

Manhattan Beach, Minn.
Manhattan Beach, Minn.
William Lager | MPR News

In 15 other states, the seat is considered vacant in the case of a tie, and a new election is required, Lindberg said.

This was the first tie-breaker anyone can remember in Manhattan Beach, a rural hamlet known for a popular lodge overlooking the Whitefish Chain of Lakes.

The city only has about 60 residents. And, as in many small towns, it's sometimes a struggle here to find enough people willing to serve in municipal posts. But almost everyone votes.

Of the 48 ballots mailed to registered voters in the city, one was rejected, and one person didn't vote for mayor. That left 46 votes -- split evenly down the middle for the two candidates.

Earlier in the day, Larson wondered if the local deadlock is reflective of the national political divide.

Residing mayor Paul Allen called to order the board of Manhattan Beach
Residing mayor Paul Allen called to order the board of Manhattan Beach as it proceeded to determine its next mayor through a game of chance. Allen remained the mayor with the draw of a nine of diamonds over Kevin Larson's draw of a three of hearts.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

"In today's world, the polarization in our society, I think, is probably bleeding down to the local level. I don't know," he said.

But at Wednesday night's special council meeting to decide the outcome, small-town civility prevailed. 

Council members politely debated which would be more fair: a coin toss — using a special 2018 silver dollar a resident had donated just for the occasion — or an old-fashioned high-card draw.

An old clipping advertising Manhattan Beach’s lake shore property.
On the wall in the town hall is an old clipping advertising Manhattan Beach's lake shore property.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

They decided on cards because it was more straightforward: No one would have to pick heads or tails. City clerk Amy Wannebo brought to the meeting a brand-new deck, still wrapped in plastic, which she carefully unwrapped and shuffled. The candidates wished each other luck and shook hands, then each drew a card as everyone leaned in and cameras snapped.

After losing, Larson said he felt it was a fair process.

"You have to settle this as quickly as possible so we the community can move on," Larson said. "You don't want this to drag out."

Allen, who drew the winning card, has been mayor for about 10 years. His wife, Janis, is a city council member.

How Allen became mayor is an equally unusual story: Voters wrote his name in, and he said he didn't even know he'd won until the next morning. He recalls getting a call from a television reporter who asked what he planned to do as mayor.

"I said, 'Well, improve the infrastructure and put a bid in for the Vikings stadium,'" he joked.

Allen said when he took the post, the city was on financial trouble. He's proud of helping balance the books and adopt bylaws for the city. And, typical of small-town government where everyone pitches in, Allen used his carpentry skills to put up wood paneling and build the dais inside city hall.

 Kevin Larson held his card as mayor Paul Allen considered his draw.
Kevin Larson held his card as mayor Paul Allen considered his draw.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

Even if he'd lost, Allen said he would have felt good about leaving the city financially sound.

But despite winning another term, he wasn't happy with the drawing of lots. He thinks residents in the city should have been mailed another ballot and given a second chance to vote. 

Allen said he plans to talk to state legislators about changing the law.

"To me, it's not representing the voice of the people in the vote," he said. "And to do it by a 'lot' — it just doesn't seem right."

Lindberg, the political scientist, said it does seem "fundamentally undemocratic" to use a game of chance to determine the winner of an election.

"Even though most people don't necessarily think about local elections as being important, they are the ones that are most likely to actually affect their lives," he said. 

Still, given the vast number of elections in small towns for city council, school board and other posts, Lindberg said he's surprised there aren't more tie votes, but it's often because races are unchallenged.

"In some ways, this really should happen more often," he said.