History—including Delaware’s—proves it
Every vote counts.”
We’ve all heard that patriotic rallying cry from nearly every candidate who has ever run for local, state, or national office.
But does it? Does it matter if you, as an individual citizen, bother to vote?
The answer is yes, and you need look no further than the national elections of 2016 for confirmation.
Sure, we all know the controversy around the race for president, where Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, receiving nearly three million more than Donald Trump (a margin of 2.1 percent of the total cast), while Trump won the presidency in the Electoral College, with 306 pledged electors out of 538.
But individual votes have a much greater impact on state and local elections, where the margins of victory are much, much smaller.
Take, for instance, Vermont, where a 2016 state Senate Democratic primary was determined by a single vote—out of more than 7,400 cast.
Also in Vermont, a state House seat was decided by one vote out of 2,000. Even more amazing: this was a rematch, and when the two candidates first faced each other in 2010, the race was also decided by one vote—in the other direction.
Out west, in 2016, a Wyoming state House Republican primary was won by a single vote, 583 to 582.
And in the same year in New Mexico, a state House seat was decided by two votes out of almost 14,000.
We do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.
— Thomas Jefferson
Through the years, Delaware has had its share of tight races. One of the closest occurred in the 1998 battle for the Talleyville-based 10th Representative District. Democrat William V. McGlinchey, Jr., lost to the GOP’s Robert J. Valihura, Jr., by eight votes—2580 to 2,588. Bucking the trend in Democratic New Castle County, Valihura went on to win the seat four more times, all by comfortable margins, before losing in 2008 to Dennis E. Williams by a margin of 5,038 to 4,898—a difference of 140 votes, or 1.92 percent.
Primary elections, which are often ignored by voters, have loomed large in Delaware’s history. Probably the most famous one, or at least the most controversial, was the 1988 Democratic battle for U.S. Senate between Lt. Gov. S. B. Woo and millionaire activist Sam Beard, a former aide to the late Sen. Robert Kennedy. They were vying for the right to challenge three-term incumbent Republican William Roth.
At 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 10, Woo conceded the election after totals from 93 percent of Delaware’s precincts came in, showing Beard had 21,047 votes, compared to his 18,359. In his concession speech, Woo indicated that he was ready to return to his position as physics professor at the University of Delaware.
But the next night, a poll watcher left a message on the lieutenant governor’s answering machine stating that a discrepancy in the vote tally had given Beard 2,800 votes more than he had actually received.
Election officials soon confirmed that an incorrect tally for a New Castle County election district had been punched into a computer at the County Board of Elections on Saturday. Paul Hart, director of the Elections Board, reported that “the actual vote for Beard in this district was 28 votes. One of the keyboard operators Saturday night keyed in 2,828 by mistake.” Woo was soon named the winner, although he lost to Roth in the general election.
Bad officials are elected by good citizens who don’t vote.”
—George Jean Nathan, American author and editor
In 2010, one of the biggest upsets in Delaware history, and perhaps the biggest upset anywhere in the country that year, was for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Joe Biden when he became vice president. His aide, Ted Kaufman, was appointed to fill out Biden’s term, but Kaufman chose not to run for election, so the seat was up for grabs. Chris Coons easily won the Democratic nomination, but on the GOP side, the primary became a bitter battle between Congressman Mike Castle and Christine O’Donnell, a public relations and marketing consultant.
Castle’s 40-plus years in public office had shown him to be the most popular Republican politician in a Democratic state. He served as governor from 1985 to ’92, and the next year won the state’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, a post he held when he ran against O’Donnell.
His opponent, on the other hand, had never been elected to office, having unsuccessfully run for the U.S. Senate in 2006 and 2008. But it was the heyday of the Tea Party, and the pro-life, pro-gun O’Donnell was backed by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, the NRA, and the Susan B. Anthony List. Castle was seen as the establishment, someone those on the right viewed as not committed to the cause.
This and other factors led to O’Donnell’s victory by a vote of 30,561 to Castle’s 27,021—a six percent margin.
While Castle’s loss was due in large part to the groundswell of conservatism that swept the GOP at that time, some observers believe that overconfidence on the part of his campaign and his supporters was another factor. He essentially ignored O’Donnell’s candidacy and refused to debate her.
Unfortunately for Republicans, Castle would’ve been the better nominee. Polls had shown him with a clear advantage over Coons, who drubbed O’Donnell in the general election by garnering 57 percent of the vote. Coons still holds the Senate seat today. Castle never again ran for public office, retiring to private life when his term ended in in 2011.
“Coons went from 15 percent down to Castle to 15 percent up on O’Donnell,” says John Flaherty, Democratic committeeman and long-time Delaware political observer. The race, says Flaherty, demonstrates why voters shouldn’t ignore primaries.
While GOP candidates are usually underdogs in statewide contests, they have an even tougher row to hoe in trying to become mayor of Wilmington, a Democratic stronghold. (A Republican hasn’t held the office since Harry Haskell’s lone term ended in 1973.) As a result, there have been some epic Democratic primary battles for leader of Delaware’s largest city. Perhaps the most dramatic occurred in 1992 with the victory of State Representative James Sills over two-term incumbent Dan Frawley.
While Frawley was a heavy favorite in the race, Sills knew that, historically, a mayoral candidate needs the support of only about six percent of the city’s residents, or roughly 4,400 votes.
The candidate went after those votes the old-fashioned way. “I spent months knocking on doors, and I think that had a great deal to do with my winning,” Sills said at the time, while noting that his war chest was about $30,000, compared to Frawley’s $100,000.
He beat Frawley by 927 votes—5,850 to 4,923.
“Frawley never expected to lose that primary,” says Flaherty, “and I don’t think Jim Sills expected to win.”
Frawley would die of a heart attack during a pickup basketball game two years later at the age of 53. Sills went on to serve two terms as Wilmington’s first Black mayor before losing to James Baker, who unlike Frawley and Sills, was successful in his bid for a third term. Today, the 88-year-old Sills is still active, serving on several boards.
This year, Mayor Mike Purzycki will be opposed in the Democratic primary by City Treasurer Velda Jones-Potter and former City Councilman Justen Wright. No Republican bothered to file for the office.
But many other offices will be up for grabs in both the primary on Sept. 15 (voter registration deadline is Aug. 22), and the general election on Nov. 3. In addition to voting for president, Delaware voters will decide the races for U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, governor, insurance commissioner, 11 state senatorial districts and one representative district.
A more engaged electorate, spurred by a controversial administration and debates about the coronavirus, the economy, civil rights, healthcare, and other issues, seems poised to perform what some call a civic duty.
And once again the cry of “Every vote counts!” will be heard throughout the land. Deciding whether or not to answer that call brings to mind comedian George Carlin’s words:
“If you don’t vote, you lose the right to complain.”