The Bell Curve: The power of a vote

Daily Pilot

John Dean called the other day to share a memory. He's an old friend who retired nine years ago as superintendent of Orange County schools. He now holds the title of emeritus, from which he draws on his long experience to serve as a consultant. As evidenced by his phone call, it is clear he reads the Pilot.

He was reacting to an exchange of views between Pilot columnist James Gray and reader David Pearse. It started with Gray's editorial page piece in which the retired judge wrote, "I am deeply proud to say that I have voted in every election since I became eligible," and Pearse countered that "I'm proud to say I've never voted in my life."

He followed this up by noting that Gray points to "local elections as an example of every vote mattering, but in each case one individual vote would not have mattered one iota."

And they were off and running.

Dean's memory turned out to be almost — but not quite — on target. It kicked back to Jan. 22, 1962, when the Orange County School Board of Trustees, after months of deliberation, decided to seek additional funds from the taxpayers to meet badly needed development and expansion plans for the district. The election was held on April 17 and ended in a 3,271 tie. There was also a covey of absentee ballots of which only nine were deemed valid. When they were counted, the tax override won by a margin of three votes. Not by a single vote, but close enough to make the point.

Then Pearse went for bigger game, saying that "no single vote in any national election has ever mattered at all."

If you'll allow me a little stretch, I would point out two U.S. presidents who held office because of a single vote.

John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, was a brilliant scholar versed in politics and diplomacy and groomed by his father, John Adams, for the presidency. It was his misfortune to run up against the populist and charismatic military hero, Andrew Jackson, who won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote. So the election went to the House of Representatives, where the count was tied until the last vote was cast by Sen. Henry Clay. With the presidency hanging in the balance, Clay switched his support from Jackson to Adams, thereby making him our sixth president.

Then there's the single vote that protected the presidency of Andrew Johnson, the Tennessee tailor who served as Abraham Lincoln's vice president and became president after Lincoln was assassinated. Johnson was neither up to, nor prepared, for the job. At a time when intellect and diplomacy were sorely needed, Johnson had neither.

While the nation held its breath, Congress took its critical vote. It seesawed up and down until a single vote broke the final tie and saved Johnson's job. It was cast by a Republican who voted out of a very real fear that impeachment might cripple the presidency for many years to come.

All of this anecdotal give-and-take is irrelevant to the basic question — why vote? — that started this debate. Of course a single vote is seldom, if ever, going to determine the outcome of a national election. We can dismiss it as a million-to-one possibility and let it go at that. But offering it as an argument for not voting is absurd. That is game playing with numbers. Voting is an emotional commitment to a process called democracy, in which that single vote is an emotional membership card.

Acerbic author George Jean Nathan put it this way: "Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote."

Pearse calls our government "basically a mobocracy" and goes on to present a bleak picture of how badly we have distorted the "Constitutional Republic we started out with."

He has, of course, a complete right to be as critical as he likes of the government under which he lives. Or does he? In my book, a membership card offers certain benefits and carries certain requirements. Near the top is voting. It seems a small price to pay for a shot at whacking the mobocracy.

American theologian Harry Emerson Fosdick caught this when he wrote: "Democracy is a small hard core of common agreement surrounded by a rich variety of individual differences. It is based on the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people."

These are the people who are breaking ties all over the place with their votes. Sometimes the good guys win — and the John Deans in our midst remember how it happened.

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