Geek Trivia: The Altered States of America

What three U.S. presidential elections would have placed an alternate candidate in the White House if less than 600 votes had been cast differently in each election?

The election of the President of the United States is arguably the most influential — and indisputably the most closely watched — exercise in representative democracy in the history of the world. The winner is handed the keys to the largest economy and most powerful military on the planet, which together create what is perhaps the most demanding and highly criticized office ever filled by a mere mortal.

That said, it's pretty shocking how easily different men could have occupied the White House, if just a few minor events had turned out only slightly different.

Out of 55 historical U.S. presidential elections (which excludes the 2008 contest), two, the elections of 1800 and 1824, had to be decided by the U.S. House of Representatives due to a draw in electoral college votes; a third, the election of 2000, required intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court; and a fourth, the election of 1876, was likely (though never officially) decided by a backroom deal that effectively ended post-Civil War Reconstruction and helped set back African American political participation for decades. Add to these the election of 1888 — wherein, like the elections of 1876 and 2000, the winner of the popular vote nonetheless lost the electoral college vote, and thus lost the Presidency — and one out of every 11 U.S. presidential elections end in some form of controversy.

And those are just the more infamous examples of voter signal being drowned out by election noise. A full 12 of the 55 presidential elections — or slightly more than every fifth election — has been decided by less than one percent of all the votes cast, based on research by Michigan State University scholar Mike Sheppard. While the actual margin of victory in the popular vote was larger than one percent for some of these elections, a shift of less than one percent of the participating electorate could have changed the outcome, thanks to the vagaries of the electoral college. Sheppard has determined the fewest number of changed votes needed to alter the outcome of each election.

Three of these elections, however, were so close that a different man would have become president if less that 600 people had voted differently in each race.


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By Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...