You've probably heard the old truism that every vote counts. But judging from the embarrassingly low voter participation rate in U.S. elections compared to those in other developed countries, it's safe to say that many Americans don't believe that casting a ballot for a particular candidate really matters that much in the result.
That's substantiated by a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, in which 25 percent of nonvoters otherwise eligible to cast a ballot in that year's presidential election cited "my vote would not matter" as the explanation for why they abstained. That's nearly as high as the number who said they didn't vote because they didn't like either candidate (26 percent), and higher than the portion who had neglected to register (22 percent) by deadline.
Indeed, the chances of a single voter casting what researchers call a "pivotal vote" in an election are pretty remote — but it does happen.
In a 2001 study, University of Chicago economics professor Casey B. Mulligan and business economic consultant Charles G. Hunter studied nearly a century's worth of Congressional election results and 21 years' worth of state legislative election returns — nearly 57,000 elections in all, not counting uncontested races. Out of the 16,577 federal elections studied, only one was decided by a single vote. But the researchers found seven state elections that came down to a single ballot.
As Mulligan wrote in a 2010 post for The New York Times' Economix blog, the chances that a voter will cast a ballot that will determine the winner of a federal election is less than 1 in 100,000 and in state legislative races, the odds increase to 1 in less than 25,000. In local elections, where the electorate may be in the few thousands or even hundreds, pivotal votes may happen even more often. While nationwide data isn't available, in Ohio alone 14 races for office in 2015 resulted in either a tie or a single-vote margin, according to the Record-Courier newspaper.
"The determine-the-winner incentive to vote is minuscule," says Mulligan via email. "Even in a local election with, say, 2000 votes, it's still only a one-in-1,000 chance."
But even though one vote has only a tiny chance of being the pivotal one in an election, that doesn't mean that voting isn't important. Collectively, votes matter a great deal. Certain groups in the population that have higher turnout rates — such as older voters, the wealthy, and white Americans — benefit from the clout that they achieve as a result, says Sean McElwee, an analyst for Demos, a public policy organization that works to reduce political and economic inequality in the U.S.
"When gaps in turnout are smaller, policy is more equitable," McElwee says. "Even in deeply blue or red district, vote shares send important signals to representatives about their constituents. In local elections, where turnout rates are often single-digit, vote margins are far narrower and turnout is even more skewed against people of color, young people and low-income folks."
These are some of the other elections in the United States decided by a single vote:
1. 1910 Election for the 36th Congressional District of New York
In the only Congressional election to have been determined by a single vote, Democratic challenger Charles Bennett Smith, a newspaper editor by trade and an advocate of Prohibition, faced Republican incumbent Rep. D.S. Alexander. According to a Nov. 20, 1910, New York Times article, after the initial counting of the returns, the two candidates were tied at 20,684. But the election board noticed an error in the total on a tally sheet from one district. When it was corrected, Smith received the single vote needed to elect him. According to his Congressional biography, Smith became chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and was elected three more times to Congress before losing a re-election bid in 1918.
2. 2000 Seat Pleasant, Maryland, Mayoral Election
This Maryland city had one of the strangest one-vote elections ever — it was decided by a vote that wasn't cast. A woman showed up at her polling place on the evening of the election, and all though she was registered to vote, her name didn't show up in the records because she had changed her address. Officials didn't allow her to cast a ballot for the candidate of her choice, Thurman D.Jones, Jr., and Jones lost the election by 247-246 to incumbent Eugene F. Kennedy. Jones later filed a lawsuit contesting the result. But in a 2001 ruling, the Maryland Court of Appeals overturned a lower-court ruling and left Kennedy as the winner, because it hadn't been shown that fraud had been committed.
3. 2008 Alaska House of Representatives District 7 Election
Republican Rep. Mike Kelly won re-election by a vote of 5,018 to 5,017 over Democratic challenger Karl Kassel — but only after overseas absentee ballots were counted.
4. 2012 Democratic Primary for 87th Legislative District in Missouri
Because of redistricting, Rep. Stacey Newman was pitted in a primary against a fellow legislator, Rep. Susan Carlson. On election night, Newman prevailed by a single vote, 1,823 to 1,822. But the St. Louis County Election Board declined to certify the results, saying that 102 voters at one polling place had mistakenly been given ballots for a neighboring district. But in a do-over primary seven weeks later, the result was unchanged. Newman again won, this time by 95 votes.
5. 2013 Election for 12th Legislative District in New York
In the 2012 race in Oswego County, New York, Richard P. Kline and John W. Brandt faced each other in both the Republican and Conservative party primaries, with Kline winning the Conservative party nod and Brandt winning as the Republican standard-bearer. When the results were tallied on election night, Kline appeared to be on top by just seven votes, but Syracuse.com reported that his margin eventually shrank to just one vote, 371-370.
6. 2017 Clyman, Wisconsin, Board Chairman
The tiny village of Clyman, Wisconsin, population 488, isn't a place that's in the news much. But in April 2017, Clyman had an extremely tight race for the post of board chairperson. David Blank, a local fire captain, received 101 votes to 100 for runner-up Mark Othmer.