One Vote Can Make A Difference

It’s rare for an election to be decided by a single vote. But most election cycles bring an example of a very close race, a race in which every single vote really counts because it is so close. This year, let me submit for your consideration the race for Senate in Minnesota. With 100% of the precinct reporting there, the results with all precincts in Minnesota reporting, are as follows:

Candidate Party Votes Percentage
Norm Coleman
Republican 1,210,942 42%
Al Franken Democratic
1,210,371 42%
Dean Barkley Independence
437,187 15%

That’s a difference of 571 votes out of more than 2.6 million cast deciding to retain the incumbent Republican. Yes, this will almost surely go to a mandatory recount and that may switch it over yet. But we have two lessons to draw from this.

First, a strong third-party candidate can be a spoiler, which means that the winner of the race would be well-advised to throw a policy sop to the supporters of the third party so as to shore up future challenges like this. In this case, it seems that Barkley drew from people who were attracted to either of the major party candidates, so it’s clear whether he spoiled the win for Franken or made it edgy for Coleman, but Coleman ought to take a look at why people voted for Barkley and see where he can comfortably integrate Coleman’s platform into his own.

Second, we also learn that individual votes do matter. Although your chances of affecting a very large election, on your own, are very small, that does not mean that you do not have an impact. Here, less than 600 people decided the outcome of this election — an outcome that might have a reasonable chance of spoiling the Democrats’ hope for a filibuster-proof Senate. (Now, if you ask me, Saxby Chambliss in Georgia holding on to his seat by a 4% margin did that, but Coleman provides a tiny little bit of a buffer for that.) So maybe voting is a rational thing to do, or at least it was for Minnesotans, because their voting cumulated to a very small margin of victory for the incumbent. Collectively, yes, each voter was something of a voice in the wilderness. But viewed collectively, the margin of victory was so slim that we cannot with any kind of accuracy say which 600 votes were the ones that made the difference.

Franken could have won this race. Hell, he still could given the need for a recount. Either way, the winner will have to run scared for a while, which means that the winner will need to pay close attention to what his constituents want out of Washington. But Minnesotans should have voted; each their votes had a significant impact.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. >>Here, less than 600 people decided the outcome of this election —it’s 286 votes, minus 286 from Coleman then add 286 to Frankenc 1210656f 1210657 (Maybe a third grade teacher can check my math)

  2. It’s not a zero-sum game as between Coleman and Franklin. If you take the votes from Coleman and give them to Franklin, then I agree with your math. If that were the case, then the number needed to change the result could be as low as 286.The flaw I see with that reasonin is that a person who decided to not vote for Coleman could just as easily have then voted for Barkley, or not voted at all. That elevates the minimum number needed to put Franklin on top would be 571.”Less than 600″ out of 2.6 million votes cast is still a remarkably smal number — .023%. Using your zero-sum game assumption, the margin falls in half, to .011% Either way, it’s a very tiny margin which means that the impact of each individual vote in this race was significant — and that was the point of my post.

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