Liberal wins seat in PEI legislature with the flip of a coin

PEI rules state the winner in a close election is decided with a coin toss

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Troy Media Columnist Andy Walker
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CORNWALL, PEI, May 25, 2015/ Troy Media/ – It all came down to the flip of a coin.

The winner would sit in the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island while the loser could perhaps claim a moral victory and plan to try again. When Islanders went to the polls May 4 there were four of the 27 seats that were decided by less than 100 votes, but the closest race was in Vernon River-Stratford.

On election night Alan McIsaac (who was then education minister) prevailed over Progressive Conservative candidate Mary Ellen McInnis by just two votes. A judicial recount was a virtual certainty and the possibility of what would happen in the event of a tie was soon a major topic of conversation in a province where politics rivals hockey as the number one blood sport.

PEI only province to use flip of a coin to decide close elections

Each jurisdiction in Canada determines its own rules in the rare event two candidates finished tied. Most have a run-off by-election involving only the tied candidates. In Ontario and New Brunswick it is the unenviable task of the district returning officer to cast the deciding vote. In Nova Scotia and the Yukon, the candidates draw lots.

flip of a coinOnly PEI has decided to go with a flip of a coin. Knowing there was a distinct possibility it would be needed, Chief Electoral Officer Gary McLeod had a shiny 1982 silver dollar ready. Prior to the recount starting, he explained the rules: the candidate with the last name closest to the start of the alphabet (in this case McInnis) would have heads.

Approximately four hours later, Provincial Court Judge John Douglas determined that one vote for McInnis had mistakenly been credited to the incumbent cabinet minister. That meant the coin was all that mattered now – not the 26 day campaign or the 1,173 votes each candidate had in their pile.

It all came down to how that coin landed. It came up tails and McIsaac became the minister of agriculture and fisheries the next day. The same law that calls for the coin toss allows McInnis to launch an appeal to the Supreme Court. As of this writing, she was still considering that option.

Not surprisingly, what has become known locally as the “coin toss election” generated plenty of headlines both within the province and nationally. Many of the comments on national media websites questioned the province’s right to exist – something islanders have to endure most times the province is portrayed in a negative light nationally.

However, McLeod said Elections PEI is taking another look at the idea. This was the first time a tie vote occurred since the regulations were changed in 2008 to substitute a flip of a coin for a system which saw the district returning officer cast the winning ballot. In a small province where everybody knows everybody, that system had the potential to create hard feelings, especially in small communities.

There is no question the fairest way would be a run-off election. However, that too is something of an artificial environment. When the votes were cast on election day, those going into the ballot box did not have the benefit of knowing what the provincial outcome would be.

Tory candidate may have better luck next time

If a by-election were held now, voters in Vernon River-Stratford would know they could either have a cabinet minister or an opposition MLA. In a province where being “on the winning side” can often be an important consideration in getting seasonal government jobs, McIsaac would have a distinct advantage.

Should McInnis decide against launching a court appeal, it will be interesting to see if she takes another run at the seat in four years time. Regardless of who she might face, there would likely be a sizeable contingent of voters who would feel bad about the way things ended last time and say her time had come.

A life-long resident of Prince Edward Island, Troy Media Syndicated Columnist Andy Walker has been a writer and commentator for over 30 years.

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