“The most powerful thing we own is our vote.”
— Bev Perdue
“All we have is our vote, but it’s powerful.”
— Adam McKay
Thomas Jefferson and Delaware’s own Rutherford B. Hayes were elected by single vote margins through the 1800 Electoral College and the 1876 Electoral Commission. No fewer than five Congressional races have been decided by a single vote.
No story, however, illustrates the power of every vote better than that of Indiana farmhand Henry Shoemaker. Little is known about his past, his education or, for that matter, what happened to him after the Indiana Congressional elections of 1842.
During the course of the campaign season, Shoemaker, a poor farm worker, had occasion to meet one of the candidates for state representative- a man by the name of Dr. Madison Marsh. The farmhand and the Democratic candidate hit it off and Shoemaker promised Marsh that he would vote for him. Though Shoemaker nearly forgot it was Election Day, he left the fields early, rode his horse to his polling place and attempted to vote.
Unfortunately, the polling place was out of ballots. Undeterred, Shoemaker reportedly used pieces from other ballots and a paper bag to make his own ballot and cast his vote for Marsh. Because the vote was not on an official form, the election inspector set it aside and the race between Marsh and his opponent ended in a tie.
After a lengthy court battle, Shoemaker’s improvised ballot was allowed making Marsh the winner by one vote. But the story gets more incredible from there.
Marsh’s career as a state representative was unremarkable other than that he served at a time when state legislatures still elected United States Senators. In January 1843 he took office and the Indiana legislature set to the task of selecting a Senator. Through five ballots the contest was tied. On the sixth ballot, Dr. Madison Marsh changed his vote and Edward Hannegan was elected to the United States Senate by one vote.
Two years into Hannegan’s term, Congress debated whether to allow the Republic of Texas to join the Union as a state. Debates raged for months in Congress. Finally, on June 23, 1845, the Senate voted to approve statehood for Texas. The single deciding vote on that question was cast by Indiana Senator Edward Hannegan.
The following year, 1846, saw Congress debating whether to wage war against Mexico. Party bosses polled their Senators in private and found that the vote was likely to be deadlocked. But Senator Hannegan was absent when the polling took place. He was summoned to the Capitol and cast his vote in favor of war, bringing the United States into a war with Mexico by one vote. That war resulted in control of western territory being transferred to the United States, including much of the land that now comprises California.
It is impossible to be certain that the story of Henry Shoemaker is not apocryphal, but the votes of Dr. Madison Marsh and Senator Edward Hannegan are a matter of record. They demonstrate that every election, be it a landslide or a nail biter, is made up of individual votes. Too precious to be wasted, too fragile to be kept- a commodity whose value can only be realized when it is fully expended.
This past Tuesday, 78.24 percent of registered Delaware County voters came out and cast a vote. That number will get slightly higher once the provisional ballots are counted and the final vote certified. The total is slightly higher than the 2008 presidential election and just three-quarters of a point lower than 2012.
As further proof of just how important every vote is, the Marlboro Township tax levy finished the night with 81 votes in favor and 80 against. A handful of provisional ballots remained to be verified and, if valid, added to that total.
More information on Henry Shoemaker can be found in Rick Beyer’s The Greatest Stories Never Told, a publication of the History Channel. A history of the debates surrounding Texas’ statehood can be found in Paul Wellman’s Magnificent Destiny.
David Hejmanowski is Judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.