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Home --> History --> Government --> 'One Vote' Fallacies

'One Vote' Fallacies

Claim:   To impress upon readers the importance of casting their votes, lists circulate that perpetuate a variety of "one vote" canards, such as:
  • In 1645, one vote gave Oliver Cromwell control of England.
  • In 1649, one vote caused Charles I of England to be executed.
  • In 1776, one vote gave America the English language instead of German.
  • In 1845, one vote brought Texas into the Union.
  • In 1875, one vote changed France from a monarchy to a republic.
  • In 1923, one vote gave Adolf Hitler leadership of the Nazi Party.
  • In 1941, one vote saved Selective Service - just weeks before Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Status:   All the above claims are false.

Origins:   Regardless of the value of casting a ballot, the fervor to incite others to vote doesn't abrogate the need to be factual in the claims used as prods. The falsities listed above routinely find their way into the media, most likely because they have so often been circulated as part of larger lists detailing incidents where one vote made an important difference that this year's inciter doesn't think to question
them.

Worse, not only are these lists published as gospel both in the traditional print media and on the Internet, they often survive attempts to debunk the various erroneous claims made in them. Election year after election year, screwball "one vote" lists have life breathed back into them through impassioned readers' letters on the editorial page, in the body of news articles by paid journalists, and in the offerings of advice and opinion columnists.

Misinformation of this nature is a Weeble — you can hit it, you can knock it down, but as surely as God made little green apples, it will pop back up. And sure enough, Jesse Jackson's speech before the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles on 15 August 2000 included this bit of wisdom about the importance of voting:
One vote decided that America would speak English rather than German in 1776. One vote kept Aaron Burr, later charged with treason, from becoming our president. One vote made Texas part of the United States of America in 1845. One vote changed France from a monarchy to a republic. One vote has the power to change our course.
Ann Landers ran the following on 4 November 1996:
DEAR READERS: Tomorrow is Election Day. If you don't bother to vote, you have no right to complain about who gets elected. The essay that follows was sent in by a reader in Missouri. I hope it will inspire you.

How Important Is One Vote?
  • In 1645, one vote gave Oliver Cromwell control of England.
  • In 1649, one vote caused Charles I of England to be executed.
  • In 1776, one vote gave America the English language instead of German.
  • In 1845, one vote brought Texas into the Union.
  • In 1868, one vote saved President Andrew Johnson from impeachment.

  • In 1875, one vote changed France from a monarchy to a republic.
  • In 1876, one vote gave Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency of the United States.
  • In 1923, one vote gave Adolf Hitler leadership of the Nazi Party.
  • In 1941, one vote saved Selective Service - just weeks before Pearl Harbor was attacked.
When Ann Landers' readers started flooding her mailbox with "you wuz wrong" notes, she printed their comments in her 30 December 1996 column:
Dear Ann Landers: I'm no historian, but that essay in your column about one vote preserving English as our official language is a myth that refuses to die. There NEVER was a possibility that German would be the official language of the United States, nor was there a vote on such a measure.

The Library of Congress first began to receive queries about this during the late 1930s, when Nazi propagandists were hard at work trying to convince the world that America had almost been a German-speaking country. That story gained such momentum over the years that the Congressional Research Service looked into it in 1982. Here's what happened:

In 1794 some German settlers in Virginia petitioned the U.S. Congress to have certain federal statutes translated into German and printed in both languages. This petition was referred to a committee, which voted the idea down - by a margin of one vote.

Please stomp out that piece of fiction whenever you encounter it. Support your local responsible historian.

Lewiston, Maine

Dear Lewiston: Thank you for helping to set the record straight.
[Even the lad who was setting Ann Landers straight got a bit of the explanation wrong. The claim "This petition was referred to a committee, which voted the idea down - by a margin of one vote" isn't right. Nothing got voted down; the measure that was defeated was a petition to adjourn. By the way, in case Lewiston's explanation wasn't perfectly clear, the German language fracas was over a proposal brought by a group of German-Americans from Virginia who were asking that a printing run of 3,000 sets of laws also be translated into German for the benefit of the German-speaking folks they represented.

Our German Vote page explains this more clearly than constraints of space allow for here. Now let's get back to Ann's response.]
Methinks when early American history was taught in school, I was out to lunch. Read on for some other interesting tidbits:
 

Dear Ann: You printed that "in 1868, one vote saved President Andrew Johnson from impeachment." Actually, "impeachment" means a public official has been charged with a crime. Andrew Johnson was not saved from that. However, he was not convicted because the Senate was one vote shy of the two-thirds necessary. Thought you'd want to know.

- Gail in Bartow, Fla.
 

Dear Ann: Oliver Cromwell did not gain control of England by one vote. Parliament dissolved itself without even taking a vote. That wasn't the only error in your column about the importance of one vote. On the day King Charles I of England was sentenced to death, no vote was taken, but 59 commissioners eventually signed his death warrant. Texas was brought into the Union by a Senate vote of 27 to 25 and a House vote of 132 to 75. And finally, Adolf Hitler became dictator of the Nazi Party in 1921, not 1923. And the vote was 553 to 1.

- Madison, Wis.

Dear Madison: I want to thank all who wrote about the importance of one vote. Did you know that in the last presidential election, fewer than half the people eligible to vote turned out? This is a sad commentary when one considers how many people have fought and died for the privilege.
Ten years earlier Ann's sister, Abigail van Buren, was given a similar list by one of her readers, ran with it, and also received a flood of mail setting her straight.
[Dear Abby, 23 March 1986]

Dear Abby: In a recent column you emphasized the importance of voting. May I share with your readers some examples of how one vote changed history?
  • In 1645, ONE VOTE gave Oliver Cromwell control of England.
  • In 1649, ONE VOTE caused Charles I of England to be executed.
  • In 1839, ONE VOTE elected Marcus Morton governor of Massachusetts.
  • In 1845, ONE VOTE brought Texas into the Union.
  • In 1868, ONE VOTE saved President Andrew Johnson from impeachment.
  • In 1876, ONE VOTE changed France from a monarchy to a republic.
  • In 1923, ONE VOTE gave Adolf Hitler leadership of the Nazi Party.
  • In 1960, ONE VOTE change in each precinct in Illinois would have defeated John F. Kennedy.
James W. Anderson
Talladega, Ala.
Like Ann's, Abby's readers reacted by sending in corrections. Here's one of Abby's columns of those letters:
[Dear Abby, 12 May 1986]

1 MAN, 1 VOTE — AND MANY ERRORS

Dear Abby: I would like to comment about the letter from an Alabama reader who gave examples of "how one vote changed history." His purpose, to encourage voting, was a good one, but most of his facts were wrong.

He said: "In 1645, one vote gave Oliver Cromwell control of England."

Wrong! In 1645, Oliver Cromwell became leader of the New Model (Puritan) Army, but not of England, which was then in the midst of a civil war. He didn't establish his own government until 1649 - and then did so in part by expelling opponents from Parliament. It wasn't primarily votes but strong leadership and military force that established his control.

He said: "In 1649, one vote caused King Charles of England to be executed."

Wrong! In 1649, King Charles I of England was executed - but not as a result of a one-vote margin. Cromwell's soldiers excluded the moderate majority from the House of Commons and shut down the pro-royalist House of Lords entirely; a newly established revolutionary tribunal then tried the king and overwhelmingly condemned him to death.

He stated: "In 1845, one vote brought Texas into the Union."

Wrong! In 1845, the U.S. Senate passed the convention annexing Texas by two votes (27-25), not one; and it entered into force only after ratification by the Texas Congress and voters.

He stated: "In 1876, one vote changed France from a monarchy to a republic."

Wrong! In 1876, France was not a monarchy; it had become a republic in 1875, by a larger margin. (Its empire had ended in 1870; previous monarchies ended in 1830 and 1848.)

He stated: "In 1923, one vote gave Adolf Hitler leadership of the Nazi Party."

Wrong! Hitler acquired dictatorial control of the Nazi Party in 1921, not 1923, and by a party congress vote of 553-1 - not exactly a one-vote margin.

Abby, if your Alabama correspondent wanted his argument to be effective, he should have checked his facts.

Louise E. Hoffman, Ph.D.

Dear Dr. Hoffman: I was hesitant to publish his letter without checking his facts, but he seemed so cotton pickin' sure, I didn't question his sources. My fault, not his.
Our earliest print sighting (so far) dates to 1979, where it appeared in a collection of anecdotes and talking points:
Suppose we scan the pages of history to see some of the great issues which were one or lost by one vote.

Oliver Cromwell won control of England in 1645, when Parliament voted 91 to 90 in his favor. King Charles I was beheaded on the basis of the judges' vote of 68 to 67. France changed from a monarchy to a republic in 1875. The vote of the deputies was 353 to 352.

During the American Revolution, anti-British sentiment was high in many colonies. A bill was presented to the Continental Congress which would have abolished English as the official American language in favor of German. The bill was defeated by one vote. In 1845, the Senate voted 26 to 25 to admit Texas to the union. Indiana's Senator Hannigan changed his mind and voted in favor of its admission. And, the senator himself had won his election to office by only one vote!

President Andrew Johnson escaped impeachment in 1868 by one vote. Rutherford B. Hayes was elected President of the United States in 1876 by an electoral vote of 185 to 184.

On November 8, 1923, the leaders of the tiny Nazi party met in a Munich tavern and elected Adolf Hitler as their leader — by a margin of one vote. What disastrous world war might have been averted if that group had elected a different man!
Some claims from the "one vote" laundry lists have something to them, namely:
  • Andrew Johnson retained his office by one vote. The final tally against him was 35 to 19, but a two-thirds majority of the votes cast was needed to oust him from office, thus a 36-to-18 result was required.

    Gail in Bartow, Fla., was right, though. The vote was not to impeach Johnson (which had already been done); the vote was to remove him from office. Folks have come to think of these terms as interchangeable, but they're not. (President Clinton was recently impeached, but he was not removed from office either.)
  • In 1839, Marcus "Landslide" Morton was indeed elected governor of Massachusetts by one vote. Of the 102,066 votes cast by the good people of that state, he received exactly 51,034. Had his count been 51,033, the election would have been thrown into the Legislature, where he probably would not have won.

    "Landslide" also made the record books in 1842 when he won the same office again by one vote, this time in the Legislature. (In those days, Massachusetts governors were elected for terms of one year.)
And some of the claims made have something to them, but should be dismissed anyway:
  • Rutherford B. Hayes was elected President in 1876 by one vote, but it was due to election chicanery and backroom deal-making and thus should not be counted as an honestly arrived-at result. Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote by a quarter million votes and came up one electoral vote shy of a majority because twenty electoral votes were under dispute. A Congressionally-appointed commission composed of eight Republicans and seven Democrats voted along party lines, awarding all twenty of those disputed votes to Hayes.
  • In 1941, the active-service component of the Selective Service Act of 1940 was extended by a margin of one vote, 203 to 202. The original act provided that a drafted man should serve for one year and then spend ten years in the reserves, subject to call-up in case of war. The amendment lengthened every draftee's service from one year to two-and-a-half years. This close vote didn't save Selective Service from being axed; what was voted on was how long a draftee would have to serve if called up. Had the amendment been defeated, the original act would have remained in force; there was no expiry date on it, and nothing needed to be renewed to keep it going.

    No one knows where the "just weeks before Pearl Harbor was attacked" element enters into things. The vote was held in August 1941, four months before Pearl Harbor.
And some claims we'll never get to the bottom of:
  • Adolph Hitler resigned from the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP) in July 1921. He allowed himself to be coaxed into rejoining shortly afterwards with the demand that he be given "the post of chairman with dictatorial power." The party membership soon voted 553 to 1 in favor of taking Hitler back on his terms. How anyone could claim this was a "one vote" election is mystifying.
  • A one vote change in each precinct in Illinois would not have defeated John F. Kennedy in 1960. In the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy bested Richard Nixon by a mere 118,000 popular votes (out of 68 million ballots cast), and Kennedy also won the state of Illinois by a margin of less than 9,000 votes. However, the key electoral vote total wasn't nearly as close as the popular vote: Kennedy came out ahead of Nixon by a 303 to 219 margin, so even if Nixon had taken Illinois (and its 27 electoral votes), Kennedy would still have won a majority in the electoral college.

    Even the charge that a one vote difference in each precinct in Illinois would have changed that state's results is hard to prove or disprove because it's widely understood there was a fair bit of cheating carried out by both sides over those 27 electoral votes. What the numbers eventually tallied out to be is almost immaterial, as both Nixon's and Kennedy's factions were reportedly stuffing every ballot box in sight. That year, the motto in Illinois seemed to be: "One man, one vote - and then some." A statement from Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley captured the essence of what was going on in that place and time: "One of their precincts, outside of Peoria, where there are only 50 votes, just announced 500 votes for Nixon."
In closing, here's a real "one vote" story that's not on anybody's list, though it should be:
On 18 January 1961, in Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania), the Afro-Shirazi Party won the general elections by a single seat, after the seat of Chake-Chake on Pemba Island was won by a single vote.
Barbara "and no married ones" Mikkelson

Last updated:   29 September 2007

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  Sources Sources:
    Eliot, Thomas H.   "Did We Almost Lose the Army?"
    The New York Times.   12 August 1991   (p. A15).

    Gill, James.   "Electoral College: Do We Need It?"
    The Times-Picayune.   20 December, 1996   (p. B7).

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    The Boston Globe.   25 December 1996   (p. A19).

    Sapsted, David.   "Johnson Was Saved by a Single Vote"
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    Southwick, Albert.   "A Politician of the Past Presaged the Present."
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    Tan, Paul Lee.   Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations.
    Rockville, Maryland: Assurance Publishers, 1979.   ISBN 0-88469-100-4   (p. 620).

    Van Buren, Abigail.   "Dear Abby."
    23 March 1986   [syndicated column].

    Van Buren, Abigail.   "Dear Abby."
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    Young, Mark C.   The Guinness Book of World Records.
    Stamford, CT: Guinness Media Inc., 1996.   ISBN 0-9652383-0-X   (p. 181).