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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Tip of a milk bottle could decide winner of tied Fairfield Town Council race as all ballots are counted

Elections service technician Ralph Gruss, left along with Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, center, smiled as Patricia Neuman, right was declared the winner of the Latah Town Council race by using the two balls in a bottle method as the tiebreaker at the Spokane County Courthouse in this December 2013 photo. The method will be used again this Monday to decide the winner of a tied race for Fairfield Town Council. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
By Emma Epperly and Adam Shanks The Spokesman-Review

The race for Fairfield Town Council could come down to two balls and a small brown milk bottle.

With every ballot in Spokane County counted, Dave Watling and Steven Walk are locked in a dead heat with 78 votes apiece as they seek position 3 on the Fairfield Town Council. If those results hold after the election is certified and an automatic hand recount is conducted, the winner will be chosen by a game of chance.

In Spokane County, it’s become tradition that two balls, each marked with a number assigned one of the two candidates, are placed inside a small brown milk bottle.

“We shake it up and whichever ball comes out wins the race,” said Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton.

There are no longer any ballots in Spokane County left to be counted, but a valid ballot could still come in from an overseas or military voter. The auditor plans to certify the election on Nov. 26. Then, assuming it meets the parameters under state law, election workers would conduct a recount by hand.

The hand recount would be certified on or about Dec. 6. If the results hold up, the game of chance would be played as soon as possible.

The game is played in front of the county auditor, a neutral party who ensures impartiality. It can be the flip of a coin, the draw of a straw – anything random that involves no skill and both candidates agree is completely fair. In Spokane County, it’s become the draw from a milk bottle.

“I’m not sure exactly how we ended up with this thing. It’s been around for a long time,” Dalton said of the milk bottle.

Fairfeild candidate, Steven Walk, was happy people came out to vote even if a recount and milk bottle draw are required.

“It’s kind of weird knowing that the fate of the election comes down to basically drawing out of a hat,” Walk said.

The tight race shows that “your vote matters,” Walk said.

“The town only has a couple hundred registered voters and there’s at least over 150 people that came out and voted,” Walk said. “It’s great to see that people came out to vote.”

If Walk doesn’t take the seat he said he plans to pursue other ways to get involved in Fairfield.

“I have good support from at least 50% of the town,” Walk joked.

Watling could not immediately be reached for comment.

The last tie in Spokane County was for a Latah Town Council race in 2013. Patricia Neuman was declared the winner over Melanie Meagher through the use of the brown bottle.

Although other recounts aren’t needed this election, a few races stayed close until Tuesday.

Incumbent Sandra Huggins won re-election to her seat as Riverside School District Director 3, even though she didn’t want it.

Huggins missed the deadline to have her name removed from the ballot and encouraged people to vote for her opponent, Joslyn James.

Huggins had 1,297 votes to James’ 1,258.

In Deer Park, Helen (Dee) Cragun beat her opponent Carla Phillips by just 6 votes, narrowly missing the window for a recount.

Cragun has been on council for 21 years and hopes to finish several long term projects, like a splash pad for local children, during this term.

Final Count

With zero ballots left to count, Tuesday’s count was the last tally that will be posted by the Spokane County Elections Office until the election is certified on Nov. 26.

Although he immediately conceded on election night, Ben Stuckart finished 849 votes behind Nadine Woodward in the race for Spokane mayor, a difference of about 1.2 percentage points.

Although the Spokane City Council President race between Breean Beggs and Cindy Wendle appeared remarkably tight on Election Day and the following days, Beggs actually defeated Wendle by a wider margin than Woodward beat Stuckart.

As of Tuesday’s count, Beggs was leading Wendle by 957 votes, or about 1.44 percentage points.

In the race for District 3 on the Spokane City Council, incumbent Councilwoman Karen Stratton held onto her slim margin over challenger Andy Rathbun. She leads him by 431 votes, or about 1.8 percentage points.

About 47.5% of the county’s 330,406 registered voters cast a ballot in this year’s election. That’s a substantial improvement over the 34% turnout of the 2017 election and better than the 42% turnout of the 2015 election.

Overall, Dalton said voter turnout in Spokane County was solid.

“It’s actually a lot higher than I expected. People were really interested in the city races, especially the city of Spokane, and there was a lot in the city of Spokane Valley,” Dalton said.