5 Times a Small Number of Votes Had a Huge Influence on Policy

It may feel like a few votes never make a difference, but don’t tell that to the members of Congress who won their jobs by single digits.

While President Joe Biden outpaced former President Donald Trump by more than 7 million votes in 2020, another politician was busy winning her job in Washington by a much smaller margin: six votes.

“I'm the poster child for why your vote matters,” Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks — an Iowa Republican whose single-digit margin of victory came in a district of 567,000 registered voters — told NBCLX. “Every vote counts.”

Here are five times a very small number of votes had an oversized role influencing policy.

Rep. Miller-Meeks (Republican, Iowa)

It took 25 days for election officials to finish all the recounts, but when Miller-Meeks, a conservative, was declared victorious over Democrat Rita Hart by six votes, it reduced Democrats’ advantage in the House to just nine seats. This single-digit margin has limited how aggressive President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can be with their agendas.

Sen. Joe Manchin (Democrat, West Virginia)

Few D.C. Democrats are as unpopular within their own party as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, considered the most moderate Democrat in the Senate and a major roadblock for progressives pushing to eliminate the filibuster and pass the Biden agenda. Had Manchin not won the Mountaineer State by 3% of the vote in 2018, today Republicans would probably control the Senate, and Mitch McConnell, not Chuck Schumer, would probably majority leader, which would've shaped the Biden legacy in a dramatically different way.

Sen. Rick Scott (Republican, Florida)

Joe Manchin may've never become a household name had Democrats not lost the U.S. Senate race in Florida by 0.1% of the vote in 2018. If just one of every 2,000 Rick Scott voters had chosen the Democratic incumbent, former Sen. Bill Nelson, instead, Democrats would currently have a 51-49 advantage in the Senate — and Joe Manchin would no longer be able to single handedly spike President Biden’s climate and social spending initiatives. 

Reps. Andy Biggs (Republican, Arizona) Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (Democrat, Florida)

Other members of Congress wouldn’t have jobs if just a few of their supporters chosen to sit their elections out, or if their opponents had gotten a few more constituents to cast ballots. Arizona’s Andy Biggs won his Republican primary by 15 votes in 2016, while Florida’s Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick won her Democratic primary by five votes in 2021. Both went to win their general elections by more comfortable margins.

Your local mayor, council members, school boards

Even though national elections tend to get the most attention, the races that most impact the way you live, from schools to roads to trash and recycling pickups, are decided locally, often by very small margins.

Thirty miles from my home, there was a mayoral election that was tied, and it was decided by drawing a name out of a hat,” Miller-Meeks said.

Tied mayoral elections are not uncommon at all in Iowa, nor are super-close local elections anywhere else in America.

“School board elections, city council [or] mayoral elections, those are critically-important,” Miller-Meeks said. “Those are the people that are closest to you.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Sen. Joe Manchin’s 2018 margin of victory. He won the Mountaineer State by 3% of the vote not 0.3%.

Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s national political editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at noah.pransky@nbcuni.com or on FacebookInstagram or Twitter.