In 2004 U.S. Senator Mike Crapo, Republican of Idaho, won re-election with 99.4% of the vote. In the county in which he fared worst, he got 96% of the vote. Most politicians don't have it quite so easy. Some elections have been decided by very thin margins.
That same day, voters in the state of Washington tried to elect a new governor. Of the approximate 2.8 million votes cast, Republican Dino Rossi received 261 more than Democrat Christine Gregoire. Gregoire understandably requested a recount, which was completed two weeks later. After the recount, Rossi's lead shrank to 42 votes. The parties dug in, absentee ballots were discovered and a manual recount a month later put Gregoire up by 129 votes. Two weeks later she was inaugurated, and four years later beat Rossi by an unambiguous 171,530 votes.
Another Tight Race for Governor
Gregoire vs. Rossi wasn't the closest gubernatorial election of the last half-century. In 1962, Minnesota's incumbent governor Republican Elmer Andersen received 619,751 votes. His Democrat challenger Karl Rolvaag received 91 more. Again, recounts and challenges continued ad nauseam. The results weren't confirmed until the following March, thus giving Andersen a few more weeks in office than he would otherwise have had.
A Famous Case of a Close Race
The 2000 presidential election is still fresh in most readers' minds. To recap, it featured the unusual, but not unprecedented, occurrence of the ticket that won the popular vote (Al Gore and Joe Lieberman) losing the election. The difference in the popular vote that year was 543,895.
The difference between the 2000 presidential tickets' electoral tallies was less than the number of electoral votes up for grabs in Florida, the most tightly contested state. In 2000, 2,912,790 Floridians voted for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, while 2,912,253 voted for Gore and Lieberman. This means that the presidency was decided by a handful of fence-sitters. Had Florida's 269 least enthusiastic Bush/Cheney voters changed their minds that day, the outcome would have been different.
Canada's Close Call
A little further north, the province of Quebec is home to some of the most balanced political districts ever apportioned. In 1994 and again in 2003, an election to fill a seat in the provincial legislature resulted in a tie. In the 1994 election, incumbent Liberal Michel Charbonneau and Parti Québécois challenger Roger Paquin each received 16,536 votes. Nine years later, Liberal Pierre Brouillette and Noëlla Champagne of the Parti Québécois each received 11,852 votes. Provincial law called for new elections to be held a month later. Each time, the PQ candidate won.
High Card Wins
One state that still embraces both its Wild West heritage and a penchant for expediency is Nevada. To say that tight elections in the Silver State are settled with the flip of a coin is only a slight exaggeration. They haven't done that since 1972. These days, they use playing cards. In 2002, Republican Dee Honeycutt and Democrat R.J. Gillum deadlocked at 107 votes apiece for a seat on the Esmeralda County Commission.
State law requires that the authorities draw lots, which in this case meant selecting the high card from a standard deck. Gillum's jack of spades beat Honeycutt's jack of diamonds, eliminating the need for any further suits.
Ties happen even in Nevada's big metropolitan area, too. Last year, the city of North Las Vegas held a primary for a city council seat. It was the perfect set of conditions for a tie: two candidates of the same party, with little name recognition, in a lightly publicized election that served only to select a candidate for the subsequent general election. Candidates Tanya Flanagan and Linda Meisenheimer each collected 328 votes. Neither wanted to pay $600 for a recount. Flanagan drew a five and Meisenheimer a king, giving her the privilege running in the general election. However, she lost the general election.
The Bottom Line
These elections were so close that many required recounts, and sometimes even unique ways of determining a winner like drawing from a deck of cards. Most close races happen in smaller counties with less voters, but on occasion a high-profile close race like the 2000 U.S. Presidential election will occur.