After Hours

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?

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 elections in question — in more ways than one — are the contests of 1884, 1876, and 2000.

The U.S. presidential election of 1884 was the least controversial of the three (relatively speaking), pitting New York governor Grover Cleveland against former Maine senator James G. Blaine. It was also a decidedly ugly contest, with a degree of mudslinging and ad hominem attacks more befitting a message-board flame war than serious national politics. The contest came down to Cleveland's home state of New York, which the governor won by just over 1,000 votes. If just a slim majority of that figure — 575 votes — had gone to Blaine instead of Cleveland, the Republican would have won The White House, and the first Democratic President would have lost. And all it would have required is a specific shift in 0.049 percent of the votes cast in New York.

If you think that's a close call, check out the 1876 election, which saw the governor of Ohio, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, defeat the governor of New York, Samuel J. Tilden, even though Tilden won both the popular vote and the majority of undisputed electoral college votes. Unfortunately, three states — Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina — had disputed (too close to call) electoral returns and it required one of the shadiest deals in U.S. electoral history to divine a winner.

Basically, southern Democrats handed the election to Hayes in exchange for the removal of federal troops from their states, freeing them to enact poll taxes that barred African Americans from voting. All of that could have been avoided, however, if a mere 445 votes had switched from Hayes to Tilden in South Carolina — a margin that represented 0.244 percent of all votes cast in the state.

The granddaddy of close election calls, however, is much more recent. In the 2000 U.S. presidential election, a shift of just 269 Florida voters from George W. Bush to Al Gore, Jr. would have placed Gore in the White House. That was just 0.005 percent of all Florida voters. Of course, a margin that small was bound to be legally disputed, but it's fun to dream of a straightforward election, even if history has provided far fewer of them than we'd care to remember.

Besides the above-listed trio of elections decided by three-figure margins, eight other contests were decided by four-figure (1,000 to 9,999 votes) margins. In 16 of 55 U.S. presidential elections, had a few thousand select people voted differently, history would have been drastically altered.

That's not just an outline for some outlandish alternate-history fiction, it's a timely reminder of the significance of your civic duty, and the slim electoral margin between historical success and mere presidential Geek Trivia.

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About 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...

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