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Make Sure Your Vote Is Counted: A Brief History of Close Elections

Make Sure Your Vote Is Counted: A Brief History of Close Elections

Here’s a fact: no matter how terrible the choices voters are offered, somebody gets elected in every single election there is.

It’s true. As “The Old Perfessor” Casey Stengel used to say, “You can look it up.”

And not all of those folks who run—or who do get elected—are loathsome. Often there’s a real difference between candidates. Yes, I know . . . I know. . .  sometimes it feels like a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum, but in reality the options are usually--at least to some extent--meaningful.

So here’s the point. Get involved. Cast your vote—and hope for the best. Otherwise, shut up! George Washington didn’t sit around Mount Vernon whining about how lousy the Continental Congress was or what crumbs General Conway or General Lee was. He saddled up and spent eight years in uniform. The least you—or I—can do is to show up to vote.

But you’re asking: Does my single, solitary vote actually matter?

Glad you asked. Most times, well, no, not really. But we simply don’t know when those times will be, do we? If we were so darn omniscient, we’d have all bought gold at $300-an-ounce.

We’ve had some real nail-biters in our electoral history. On Iowa Caucus night 2012, Mitt Romney bested Rick Santorum in Iowa by 8 votes. After a few weeks of ethanol-powered recounting Santorum ended up triumphing by 34 votes. There of course was Bush-Gore and the 2000 Florida Recount. Yes, it was close in Florida, where Bush won by 537 votes, but it was even closer in New Mexico, where Al Gore won by 366 votes. Jack Kennedy barely defeated Dick Nixon in 1960—and some folks still think that JFK only “won” thanks to his friends in Texas and Chicago.

In 1948 “Give ‘Em Hell” Harry Truman pulled off a legendary upset against moderate GOP favorite Tom “Give ‘Em Mush” Dewey. And what about 1916 when Charles Evans Hughes went to bed thinking he had been elected president but woke up to find he had lost to incumbent Woodrow Wilson?

We’ve had some other close races for the White House: the 1800 Adams-Jefferson contest (just ask Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr about that one), the Samuel B. Tilden-Rutherford B. Hayes 1876 race that went into the House of Representatives, and 1884’s Grover Cleveland-James G. Blaine toss-up, decided basically by a 1,149-vote margin in New York.

Getting back to Texas, though. In 1948 Congressman Lyndon Johnson and conservative Governor Coke Stevenson waged a nasty battle for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination. At first Stevenson narrowly led LBJ. But magically a whole ballot box full of votes appeared—all but one of those 203 ballots miraculously cast—in even more miraculous fashion in exact alphabetically order—for “Landslide Lyndon.” LBJ “won” his primary by 87 votes.

I wish such stories were ancient history. They’re not. In Washington State in 2004, GOP gubernatorial hopeful Dino Rossi initially led Democrat Christine Gregoire by 261 votes out of 2.8 million votes cast. Rossi eventually lost to Gregoire by 133 votes, amidst numerous charges of illegality. In King County (Seattle) alone at least 47 dead people voted.

In was virtually the same story in Minnesota in 2008 as incumbent Republican U. S. Senator Norm Coleman initially led Al Franken (Democrat-SNL) by 225 votes out of 3 million ballots cast. Democrats kept “counting” until Coleman eventually lost by 312 votes. A watchdog group estimated that at least 321 convicted felons voted for Franken in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area alone. The actual number may have been over 1,300.

The Wall Street Journal wrote of Minnesota’s disgraceful happenings: “We can’t recall a similar recount involving optical scanning machines that has changed so many votes, and in which nearly every crucial decision worked to the advantage of the same candidate. The Coleman campaign clearly misjudged the politics here, and the apparent willingness of a partisan like [Democratic Secretary of State Mark] Ritchie to help his preferred candidate, Mr. Franken.”

The moral of our story: go out and vote so to at least make it harder for the cheaters.

There’s been a passel of fairly lower-level elections decided by just a single vote. In 1839 Democrat Marcus Morton whupped incumbent Whig Massachusetts Governor Edward Everett (you remember him: the guy who gave the really long, boring speech at Gettysburg) by a solitary vote.

In New Hampshire in 1974 Republican U. S. Senate candidate John A. Durkin initially defeated Democrat Louis Wyman by 355 votes. Then it really got interesting. A recount provided Wyman with a ten-vote lead. A second re-count then said Durkin had won by two votes! The Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate, however, refused to seat the Republican Durkin, and a special election was ordered. Wyman won.

In November 2011, upstate New York’s Montgomery County witnessed a bizarre series of nail-biter races. The Town of St. Johnsville initially saw a flat-footed tie for county supervisor. In the city of Amsterdam, officials conducted recounts for the offices of mayor and comptroller, and controversial Republican Supervisor Karl Baia seemed to have triumphed over tax-limitation advocate Michael Chiara by just a handful of votes. The amazing thing was that Chiara was running as a write-in candidate. Even more amazing was the fact that after officials opened the absentee ballots, write-in candidate Chiara, an enrolled Conservative, won by three votes!

Sometimes the good guys do win. Make sure that your vote is there to be counted when they do.

Presidential election scholar David Pietrusza is the author of 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents, 1960: LBJ vs JFK vs Nixon, and 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America.


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