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The Bell Curve: The power of a vote

May 27, 2010|Joseph N. Bell

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."

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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.

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