With early voting set to begin Thursday, Oct. 14, in many cities, a new report answers the question: Does one vote really make a difference in an election?

It turns out that how one person decided to vote – or not to vote – made the difference in who won or lost an election in 39 North Carolina cities in 2019.

Right here in Onslow County, one vote decided a council seat in the town of Holly Ridge in 2019. And just across the White Oak River from Swansboro, one person’s vote settled the race for Cape Carteret mayor two years ago.

When I did a similar analysis of 2015 elections, the result was basically the same. In nearly three dozen cities, the decision of one voter could have turned a loser into a winner.

One vote will again be decisive this year in many cities – and then it will be too late to kick yourself for not bothering to vote.

Many of the close contests are in small towns, but they all involve mayors and council members who decide major issues like police oversight, affordable housing, and zoning that helps a grocery store (or a landfill) locate near your neighborhood. Local elections are important and every vote really matters.

Surprisingly, about a dozen 2019 elections were settled by a coin toss or another method that followed a state law requiring that ties in city elections be resolved “by lot.”

In a tie-vote election for town council in Tabor City in Eastern North Carolina, the chair of the Columbus County Board of Elections flipped a gold coin and one candidate called heads – and won. A coin toss also broke ties for council seats in Sylva (Jackson County), Hildebran (Burke County), Kelford (Bertie County), and a second city in Columbus County, Sanderfield.

The tied race for a town board seat in Creswell (Washington County) was decided by which candidate pulled the highest numbered piece of paper from a jar. For the tied race in Whitakers, the director of the Edgecombe County Board of Elections placed pieces of paper with the candidates’ names in a box and another person drew out of the winner. “Whatever way this turns out, I am OK with it,” said Doris Howington before the drawing. She won.

In addition to Cape Carteret (Carteret County), candidates for mayor in 2019 won by just one vote in High Shoals (Gaston County), Jefferson (Ashe County), Love Valley (Iredell County) and Teachey (Duplin County).

The mayor in Atkinson (Pender County) won by two votes. That meant if one of his supporter had picked the other candidate, the resulting tied election could have led to his defeat.

Other cities with races decided by just one or two votes in 2019 include Aberdeen, Bakersville, Columbus, La Grange, Middlesex, Mount Gilead, Old Fort and Pantego.

The lesson from our history is clear. Your one vote can have a big impact in a local election and, conversely, the local officials who win can have a big impact on your life. Their decisions can dramatically affect your neighborhood’s development, drinking water quality, and public health and safety services.

Early voting begins Oct. 14, but some cities are not paying election boards to open early voting sites. Check the State Board of Elections listing: https://www.ncsbe.gov/2021-municipal-voter-tool.

You can view your own ballot by following the directions at demnc.co/ballot.

Longtime voting-rights advocate Bob Hall of Durham is executive director of the nonpartisan organization Voting Matters Inc.

(2) comments


Great information! A real eye-opener. Thanks for providing the info.


It's possible that these tied or one- or two-vote elections were perfectly legit. After a little thought it's also possible that one or more may not be. And, some claim there's no problems in mega cities which of course are overwhelmingly blue. The difference of what 40K or so in big city battle ground states. Nah, could never happen.

Welcome to the discussion.

As a privately owned web site, we reserve the right to edit or remove comments that contain spam, advertising, vulgarity, threats of violence, racism, anti-Semitism, or personal/abusive/condescending attacks on other users or goading them. The same applies to trolling, the use of multiple aliases, or just generally being a jerk. Enforcement of this policy is at the sole discretion of the site administrators and repeat offenders may be blocked or permanently banned without warning.