The toss of a coin has been an age-old way of deciding between two choices — who pays for dinner, which team gets the football first, and, in New York, what company wins a government contract.
Municipal officials can legally flip a coin to break a tie when identical bids are submitted.
Under the state's general municipal law, if municipalities put out a request for bids and receive two matching responses that have the lowest prices, government officials need to pick one in a way that doesn't favor one vendor or the other.
That can include drawing lots by selecting names on slips of paper in a hat or drawing straws, but a handful of Long Island towns use the coin toss to break a tie, including Babylon, Brookhaven, East Hampton and Huntington.
The ties typically occur for one item in a bid request that can include dozens of items, such as supplies for a municipal animal shelter, officials said. And they tend to be for low-cost items.
Lori Finger, Huntington’s director of purchasing, wrote in an email that ties have happened once or twice in the past five years.
“However, it is an acceptable practice to do a coin toss, with at least two witnesses, to determine the successful low bidder if the prices are the same" and they both meet the bid requirements, she said.
Babylon Town has used a coin toss about a dozen times in the past eight years, according to town documents. The contracts were for items such as fertilizer seed in 2011 and bags of cat litter in March.
The coin toss must be agreed to by both vendors, who are invited to witness the flip. An employee of the town’s purchasing department uses a quarter for the toss, Babylon Town spokesman Kevin Bonner said.
“We can’t just rebid it because everybody knows each other’s numbers and it’s just a matter of these are things we need, so it’s probably better to just do it that way or any other way that’s a game of chance,” Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer said. “We’re open to suggestions if anybody wants to come up with something else.”
The losing bidder in the cat litter coin toss was The Barn Pet Feed and Supplies in Deer Park. Owner Paris Ryder said the loss wasn't a hardship because her business won more than a dozen other animal supply items in the bid.
As for using a coin toss to make the decision? “It seems fair to me,” she said.
Ryder said she wasn’t surprised the bids were identical given the prices are generally the same for some items, regardless of the supplier. Officials in other towns that use a coin toss said ties occur for the same reason: one item in a larger bid for supplies has prices that don't vary by much.
Rick Grimm, chief executive of the NIGP Institute for Public Procurement, based in Herndon, Virginia, said tie bids for municipal contracts are uncommon. The nonprofit serves 15,500 individuals in 3,000 governmental bodies across the country in an effort to “develop, support and promote” public procurement, such as developing bid standards.
“The lower the unit value of the commodity, the more likely it’s going to happen,” Grimm said of identical bids. “What price fluctuation do you have on a box of No. 2 pencils?”
About $3.25 trillion is spent nationally through public procurement in state and local governments each year, Grimm said.
In some municipalities, the contracts subjected to a toin coss are for costlier services and goods than those in Long Island governments. In 2014, a $4.4 million contract to renovate the Gretna, Louisiana, police department headquarters was decided by a coin toss, according to the New Orleans-based news site nola.com.
Coin tosses also can be used to decide weightier issues, such as elections. According to a 2014 Washington Post article, 35 states can break election ties with a coin toss or other means of chance. New York State law allows for tied village elections to be decided by the drawing of lots if a runoff election is waived by the candidates.
For the municipal procurement process, a coin toss is a fair way to decide who wins, Grimm said.
“The other alternative is to cancel and rebid, and what would be the good in that?” he said. “The suppliers have given their best and final offer through a public solicitation, so what are they going to change?”
Officials in some Long Island towns said they’ve never had a tie or use another method of picking a winner.
“We would use both of the lowest vendors and then alternate between the two,” said North Hempstead Town spokeswoman Carole Trottere.
Former State Assemb. Nancy Calhoun proposed a bill in 2007 that officials facing a tie in state contract bids would have to create a series of filters before resorting to a coin toss. For instance, under the bill, companies would get preference if they were located in-state, or were woman- or minority-owned.
“It’s a commonsense approach,” she said. “If you get down to the end after that and you don’t have a solution, find yourself a nice quarter.”
The bill never moved forward.
Some Long Island towns use a filtered approach. In Smithtown, tie bids are subjected to a point system that ranks vendors first by discounts, then by whether it’s located in the town, the county or the state.
In Southold, companies within the town are given preference in tie bids.
“We currently have no provisions for a tie and should probably consider one, coin toss or otherwise,” Supervisor Russell Scott wrote in an email. “It works for the Super Bowl.”
IS ALL FAIR IN THE FLIP?
Flipping a coin has always been viewed as a fair method of choosing between two options. But does tossing a coin in the air really produce a random result?
Persi Diaconis, professor of statistics and mathematics at Stanford University, wanted to find out. Diaconis’ research included the creation of a mechanical coin tosser and videotaping coin tosses over and over again. What he found, according to published reports, is that a coin will land on the same side it started on about 51 percent of the time.
Diaconis did not respond to requests for comment, but in a Numberphile YouTube video, he explains why his research has shown that coin toss results are not as random as people think.
“It’s not perfectly 50/50,” he says in the video. “If you start it heads up, it spends more time heads up.”
Diaconis said his research results hold up regardless of the eagerness of the coin tosser.
“I don’t care how hard you flip the coin," he said. "You can flip it to the moon. That bias is a provable stable bias.”