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10 Elections Decided by One Vote (Or Less)

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In these elections, every vote really did count.

1. United States House of Representatives elections occur more frequently (every two years) with more seats (435 since 1911, with 437 between 1959 and 1962) than any other electable federal office in the country. So it only makes sense there would be more close House calls than those for President, where Bush squeezed by Gore in Florida by a certified count of 537 in 2000, or the U.S Senate, where a two-vote margin led to a revote in a 1974 New Hampshire election. But only one time in the 20th or 21st century has a single vote made the difference in roughly 18,000 House elections: a 1910 contest for Buffalo New York’s congressional district, where Democrat Charles B. Smith snuck by incumbent De Alva S. Alexander by a single vote, 20,685 to 20,684 (although a later recount upped that winning margin slightly).

2. Oddly, the only modern instance of a United Kingdom parliamentary election being decided by a single vote also occurred in 1910, when Conservative Henry Duke eked out a victory against Liberal Harold St. Maur in the South West England city of Exeter. St. Maur, the challenger, originally won by a four-vote count, but following an electoral petition and a series of subsequent challenges, the incumbent Duke maintained his seat at the House of Commons table by the very slimmest of margins, 4777 to 4776.

3. In the case that’s most likely to have been name-checked by your Civics or Government teacher in high school, Democrat Marcus “Landslide” Morton (so nicknamed in a delicious case of 19th century irony) won the 1839 Massachusetts gubernatorial election by just one vote. Morton finished with 51,034 votes out of 102,066—or, just enough to receive a majority, and avoid sending the decision to a vote in the hostile, Whig-controlled state legislature, where he almost certainly would have lost. He lost a reelection bid in 1840 (Massachusetts gubernatorial elections were annual affairs back then), but regained the office in 1842 by a single vote in the state legislature after no candidate secured a majority vote in the general election.

4. In 2008, an Indian politician named C.P. Joshi lost by a single vote pursuing an assembly position in the North West Indian state of Rajasthan. In the final tally, Joshi fell to opponent Kalyan Singh Chouhan by a count of 62,216 to 62,215. Reportedly, Joshi’s wife, mother, and personal driver failed to show up on election day. Kalyan Singh Chouhan’s wife, on the other hand, allegedly cast votes at two different polling stations.

5. In the 1994 Wyoming’s House of Representatives race, Republican Randall Luthi and Independent Larry Call each finished with 1,941 votes. Following a recount that produced the same results, Governor Mike Sullivan settled the election in a most unconventional (although state-appropriate) fashion: drawing a ping pong ball out of his cowboy hat to determine a winner. Luthi’s name was drawn, and history may well have proven him the right man for the job: He served the Jackson Hole-area district until 2007, ultimately becoming Speaker of the House

See Also: Why Do We Vote on Tuesdays?

6. When you’re listing ties and one-vote wins, the title “Closest Election” is pretty much splitting hairs. Hairs that, really, can’t be split any further. But for a time, the Guinness World Records’ choice went to the African archipelago of Zanzibar’s general election of 1961. On the January 1961 polling day, the Afro-Shirazi Party took home 10 of 22 total seats in the Legislative Council to the runner-up Zanzibar Nationalist Party’s nine. The true kicker? The Afro-Shirazi Party won the district of Chake-Chake, and thus the most legislative seats, by a vote of 1538 to 1537. And just five months later, to end the deadlock, a new election was held. Both parties won 10 seats.

7. Just last year, a mayoral election in the Philippines province of Oriental Mindoro turned ugly after Nacionalista Party’s Salvador Py tied Liberal Party’s Marvic Feraren with equals counts of 3236. The election was ultimately decided by an agreed-upon game of chance—a series of coin tosses. After tying in the first round of coin flipping, Feraren eventually emerged the victor, but Py didn’t take the slim loss easily. According to an article in the Philippine Star, the candidate contested the results, arguing that it was unfair “a mere flip of a coin decided his fate,” particularly after he got rid of all his pigs to use them "as part of his campaign collateral.”

8. In what’s probably the strangest instance of a single vote making all the difference, a 2013 state legislature election in the Austrian state of Carinthia was decided by a ballot that featured a drawing of a penis. Each ballot had one column for ranking your choices, and the other column was for your vote. The voter made two markings: A drawing of a penis in the ranking column, and a check mark was in the choices column. It was decided that the ranking took precedence, and that penis-checked ballot ended up giving a legislative seat to the Green party, and preventing a tie with the Alliance for the Future of Austria party. 

9. The National Assembly of Québec has a history of improbably close election calls. In 1994, the Saint-Jean provincial electoral was evenly split 16,536 to 16,536 by Michel Charbonneau of the Liberal Party and Roger Paquin of Parti Québécois. In 2003, the Champlain electoral district was split evenly split 11,852 to 11,852 between the Liberal Party’s Pierre Brouillette and Parti Québécois’ Noëlla Champagne. Each of these cases called for a second vote several weeks later, and, in both cases, the Parti Québécois candidate won by a bit over 500 votes. 

10. In Nevada, they still know how to settle ties the gentlemanly way: drawing playing cards, with the high hand taking home the election spoils. In 2002, Republican Dee Honeycutt came up short, drawing a jack of diamonds to Democrat R.J. Gillum’s jack of spades for a seat on the Esmeralda County Commission. Card justice was again deployed in 2011, when Tanya Flanagan and Linda Meisenheimer tied in a North Las Vegas city council primary, and neither candidate wanted to pony up $600 for the cost of a recount. Meisenheimer ended up drawing a king to Flanagan’s five, but ended up losing the election. To which we say, $600 well-saved.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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