I don’t vote in U.S. elections for a variety of reasons. There is a criticism against voting that goes like this — there is a non-zero chance that a given election could be decided by a single vote, and that would apparently be the non-voters fault for not showing up at the polls.
There are lists going around the Internet of elections won by a single vote (or in some cases a tie). Many such lists are filled with completely fabricated elections, but it is certainly the case that reported results of an election can be a tie or a victory of just one vote.
The problem, of course, is that in most cases a single vote doesn’t really matter in these cases either. Why? Because unless we’re talking about a very small group of people voting, such as for some rural office where the number of voters may be in the low hundreds, elections that come down to just a single vote or even a small number of votes are statistically ties — the supposedly single vote that sways everything is well within the margin of error of whatever method is being used to tabulate the ballots.
For example, in the United States many jurisdictions have laws that if the results from a mechanically or computer tabulated vote shows a candidate losing to another by a small enough margin, there has to be a recount. Frequently that recount is required to be done by hand.
But researchers at Clemson University and Rice University found that hand counting of ballots after an election results in a margin of error of up to two percent.
Based on the processing of the ballots, the researchers found a one-half to 1 percent error rate for the “read and mark” method, and up to a 2 percent error rate for the “sort and stack” method.
Byrne noted that although these error rates may seem insignificant, the margins of error can make all the difference in close elections.
“While an error rate of 1 or 2 percent may seem small, recent elections — like the Iowa caucuses just last month — have had margins of victory small enough that a counting error could play a role,” Byrne said.
This is why the debate over who won Florida in 2000 was so ridiculous. The final vote count had George W. Bush winning by 537 votes over Al Gore out of 5,963,070 votes cast. The correct answer is that it is impossible to know who won Florida in 2000 since there’s no way the vote counting methodology in Florida was precise enough to count votes to the level of precision needed (especially given what we learned later about the odd standards and methods that were used for some of the hand recounts).