Onlookers waited eagerly Thursday in an auditorium at City Hall, an eclectic crowd of more than 60 that included campaign managers, political wannabes, elected officials, and city staff members curious to watch the theater of the big day.
Eyes focused on an antiquated machine atop a table. It was a gold-colored bingo spinner with a hand crank and a round metal cage the size of a toaster oven. Welcome to the city’s ballot draw, when democracy goes decidedly low-tech to determine the order that names will appear on the ballot this fall in Boston’s first open race for mayor in two decades.
“As they say in the ‘Hunger Games,’ ” Geraldine Cuddyer, chairwoman of the Board of Election Commissioners, said in her booming voice, “ ‘May the odds be ever in your favor.’ ”
The age-old method is dictated in the city charter, with names pulled at random. In this lottery, the winner’s name gets top billing on the ballot in the preliminary election Sept. 24.
Ballot order matters more this year than the past: 12 people are running for mayor, and 39 more names will appear on the ballot for City Council.
“You want to be first or last; it’s easier to find,” said Peter N. Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College. “You don’t want to have to go through the additional effort of educating the public on where you fall on the ballot.”
City Hall staffers joked about placing bets on whose name would be pulled first. Two mayoral candidates — Charles L. Clemons Jr. and Bill Walczak — looked on nervously. A hush came over the crowd as Cuddyer stepped forward.
“And now, we are going to move to the main event,” she said.
The names and home addresses of all 12 mayoral candidates had been printed on slips of paper the size of business cards. Each name was read aloud and slipped carefully into an envelope, which was sealed with a piece of tape and placed inside the belly of the bingo spinner.
After the last name was read, it was placed inside the bingo spinner. The door to the cage was locked. An election official turned the hand crank, sending the envelopes tumbling over one another like clothes in a dryer.
The spinning stopped, and Cuddyer unlocked the cage and reached inside. She used her hand to give the envelopes one last mix and pulled out a name.
“Charles L. Clemons Jr.,” Cuddyer boomed.
From his seat in the front row, Clemons smiled. His name will appear first on the ballot for mayor.
“Having your name first symbolizes and says a lot to Boston residents,” Clemons said afterward.
Attending the drawing seemed to make a difference. Walczak was the only other mayoral candidate in the room and his name was pulled next, giving him second position on the ballot.
Other names followed. After the drawing, when the bingo machine sat still, campaigns immediately started their own spinning.
Joshua Gee, a staff member for the mayoral campaign of Councilor Michael P. Ross, pivoted to sports. Ross will appear sixth on the ballot, and Gee noted in a tweet that he “has the same number (#6) as Johnny Pesky and Bill Russell — I’ll take it.”
A supporter of the mayoral bid of Councilor at Large John R. Connolly turned to the children’s television show “Sesame Street,” which may be fitting because of his candidate’s focus on schools. Connolly will be eighth on the ballot, and “Sesame Street” had a song about the number.
“The Count from Sesame Street sings 8 is great!” the Connolly supporter, Timothy Schofield, wrote in a message on Twitter.
After the drawing, Walczak said he brought his good luck charm, his wife of 40 years, Linda. He was happy to land in the second slot on the ballot, but he also urged voters to study candidates so they could make an informed choice.
Election Day, he said, should not be a random guess like a lottery, no matter how many names appear on the ballot.
“I would hope that people think about this race,” Walczak said, “and think about who they would like to see as mayor and who the best candidate is.”
Andrew Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.