Every vote counts-- especially when there's only one

Posted by Paul, 2017-03-02

Democratic participation is its own reward, even when it's unlikely that your individual vote will matter. Elections have been occasionally tied, but as the number of votes increases, this becomes increasingly unlikely.

But what happens when there's only one vote?

Let's transport ourselves via the magic of imagination to Gatton, 1802. Gatton, an English constituency in Surrey, had two representatives in parliament from the 1400s through to the Reform Act of 1832.

It's hard to tell exactly how many people lived in this double-member constituency, but the number of houses in Gatton seemed to number about half a dozen. However, given the very restrictive nature of the voters list in the pre-Reform Act era, the owner of Gatton Park, a large estate, got to choose both MPs, making Gatton one of the classic and probably more outrageous examples of what is called a rotten borough (a small constituency in the hands of, at most, a few wealthy land owners).

By 1802, Sir Mark Wood was the owner of Gatton Park. Wood had tried to win election in Shaftesbury, but lost to Robert Hurst, a Whig. He ultimately became the MP for Gatton-- where was, coincidentally, the only voter. Wood also voted for James Dashwood, who was his brother-in-law.

The next year, Dashwood was then convinced to resign in order to allow Philip Dundas, the nephew of Henry Dundas (an important supporter of Prime Minister William Pitt -- the younger one, not the older one), to serve as MP. All seemed sorted for Dundas to be acclaimed-- until Joseph Clayton Jennings, along with three friends, arrived on the scene with someone who Jennings claimed was eligible to vote in Gatton.

Questions of eligibility had to be resolved by the returning officer for the constituency. Accordingly, Mark Wood, the only voter (as well one of the two MPs for the area), had to consult the returning officer. So Wood went to the returning officer, his brother-in-law, the former MP for the area whom Wood had voted for a year before, James Dashwood who, shockingly, ruled that Jennings' friend was not eligible to vote in Gatton. This left Wood to vote for Dundas as the other MP. The official result for this contest was Dundas 1, Jennings 0.

This is the usual version of the story, which is entertaining enough. There is another account that's even more bizarre.

In this alternative version, Dundas was actually Mark Wood's son, and Wood wanted him elected as his co-MP. So, Dashwood resigns so Wood's son can be returned unopposed until Wood's butler-- in this version, Joseph Clayton Jennings -- pops up and says he wants to run, too. Now, in this version of Gatton, there are actually three voters-- Wood, his son, and Jennings, the butler. Now, Wood's son (the candidate) was away for the day, and Wood fought with Jennings to second his son for the nomination. Jennings would not budge.

A deal was struck: Jennings would second Wood's son as a candidate for the by-election if Wood would second Jennings to compete against him. In this version, the two candidates are nominated and now Wood somehow ends up being the only voter (I suppose with a voter turnout of 33%) and we then end up with the result of Wood's son (perhaps Wood, perhaps Dundas) 1, Jennings 0.

This second version is almost certainly not true (the more you think about it, the less sense it makes), but it would certainly make for a cracking BBC short film.