10 Elections Decided by One Vote (Or Less)

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On Tuesday, December 19, Democrat Shelly Simonds won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates by a single vote in a narrow-as-narrow-can-get victory. [Update: A court tossed out Simonds' victory and for now it's a tie again.] Though a one-vote win is both historic and rare, it's happened before. Here are 10 other elections where 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

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 district 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 card 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.

Why Do Supreme Court Justices Serve for Life?

Alex Wong, Getty Images
Alex Wong, Getty Images

There are few political appointments quite as important as a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unlike a cabinet secretary or an ambassador, justices serve for life. In the modern era, that often means more than three decades on the court—thanks to increased lifespans, justices appointed in the next century are expected to sit on the Supreme Court for an average of 35 years, compared to the average of around 16 years that judges served in the past. Because of this shift, some scholars have begun to question whether lifetime appointments are still appropriate, as the definition of “for life” has changed so much since the constitution was written. But why do justices serve for life, anyway?

Well, for one thing, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t exactly specify that justices and the court are in a “’til death do us part” relationship. Article III says that judges (of both the Supreme Court and lower federal courts) “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” So technically, a judge could be removed if they no longer meet the “good behavior” part of the clause, but there are otherwise no limits on their term. In practice, this means they have their seat for life, unless they are impeached and removed by Congress. Only 15 federal judges in U.S. history have ever been impeached by Congress—all lower court judges—and only eight have been removed from office, though some have resigned before their inevitable removal.

The only Supreme Court justice Congress has tried to impeach was Samuel Chase, who was appointed by George Washington in 1796. Chase was an openly partisan Federalist vehemently opposed to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican policies, and he wasn’t afraid to say so, either in his role as a lower court judge or once he was appointed to the Supreme Court. In 1804, the House of Representatives, at then-president Jefferson’s urging, voted to impeach Chase, accusing him, among other things, of promoting his political views from the bench instead of ruling as a non-partisan judge. However, he was acquitted of all counts in the Senate, and went on to serve as a Supreme Court justice until his death in 1811.

The point of giving justices a seat on the bench for the rest of their lives (or, more commonly nowadays, until they decide to retire) is to shield the nation’s highest court from the kind of partisan fighting the Chase impeachment exemplified. The Supreme Court acts as a check against the power of Congress and the president. The lifetime appointment is designed to ensure that the justices are insulated from political pressure and that the court can serve as a truly independent branch of government.

Justices can’t be fired if they make unpopular decisions, in theory allowing them to focus on the law rather than politics. Justices might be nominated because a president sees them as a political or ideological ally, but once they’re on the bench, they can’t be recalled, even if their ideology shifts. Some data, for instance, suggests that many justices actually drift leftward as they age, no doubt infuriating the conservative presidents that appointed them.

The lack of term limits “is the best expedient which can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright and impartial administration of the laws,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist No. 78. The judiciary, he believed, “is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its coordinate branches,” and “nothing can contribute so much to its firmness and independence, as permanency in office.” Without lifetime job security, he argued, judges might feel obligated to bow to the wishes of the president, Congress, or the public, rather than confining their work strictly to questions of the Constitution.

While lifetime appointments may be a longstanding tradition in the U.S., this approach isn’t the norm in other countries. Most other democracies in the world have mandatory retirement ages if not hard-and-fast term limits for high court judges. UK Supreme Court justices face mandatory retirement at age 70 (or 75 if they were appointed before 1995), as do judges on Australia’s High Court. Canadian Supreme Court justices have a mandatory retirement age of 75, while the 31 justices of India’s Supreme Court must retire by the age of 65. Meanwhile, the oldest justice now on the U.S. Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is currently 85 and kicking. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the oldest justice in U.S. history, retired in 1932 at age 90.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has never had term limits before, there have recently been serious proposals to implement them. Term limits, advocates argue, could combat partisan imbalances on the court. Presidents wouldn’t get to appoint justices purely based on whether someone died while they were in office, and the stakes for political parties nominating a justice would be slightly lower, possibly leading presidents and Congress to compromise more on appointments. One popular suggestion among political analysts and scholars is to impose an 18-year term limit, though critics note that that particular plan does bring up the potential that at some point, a single president could end up appointing the majority of the justices on the court.

In any case, considering such a change would likely require a constitutional amendment, which means it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, being on the Supreme Court will continue to be a lifetime commitment.

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Dolly Parton, They Might Be Giants, and More Featured on New Album Inspired By the 27 Amendments

Valerie Macon, Getty Images
Valerie Macon, Getty Images

Since 2016, Radiolab's More Perfect podcast has taken what is typically viewed as a dry subject, the Supreme Court, and turned it into an engrossing podcast. Now, fans of the show have a whole new way to learn about the parts of U.S. history which textbooks tend to gloss over. 27, The Most Perfect Album, a new music compilation from Radiolab, features more than two dozen songs inspired by each of the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, from freedom of religion to rules regulating changes to Congressional salaries.

More Perfect assembled an impressive roster of musical talents to compose and perform the tracklist. They Might Be Giants wrote the song for the Third Amendment, which prohibited the forced quartering of soldiers in people's homes. It goes, "But the presence of so many friendly strangers makes me nervous, and it does not mean that I'm not truly thankful for your service."

For the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, Dolly Parton sings, "We carried signs, we cursed the times, marched up and down the street. We had to fight for women's rights with blisters on our feet." Less sexy amendments, like the 12th Amendment, which revised presidential election procedures, and the 20th Amendment, which set commencement terms for congress and the president, are also featured. Torres, Caroline Shaw, Kash Doll, and Cherry Glazerr are just a handful of the other artists who contributed to the album.

The release of the compilation coincides with the premiere of More Perfect's third season, which will focus on the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. You can check out the first episode of the new season today and download the companion album for free through WNYC.

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