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Dec. 8, 2019

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In Our View: Woodland measure proves every vote counts

The Columbian
Published: December 1, 2019, 6:03am

Facts, sometimes, are not as interesting as legends.

That came to mind with the recent results of a tax measure in Woodland. Certified last week by Cowlitz County officials, the measure passed by one vote, 691 to 690.

With the city straddling the county line, the vote in Cowlitz was 675 to 674, while the measure split among Clark County voters with 16 apiece.

Notably, between the two counties there were 56 undervotes — people who turned in ballots but did not weigh in on that particular measure. Any one of them could have turned the tide of the election.

All of that means it is time to trot out the tried-but-true trope that every vote counts.

Well, except when it comes to the Electoral College, but that is an issue for another time. For now, we are intrigued by the notion that a poll of more than 1,300 people could be decided by one vote, and that brings us to one of the region’s enduring legends.

You see, as anybody who grew up around these parts knows, the name of that city to the south of us was decided by a coin flip.

Back in the 1840s, Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy were busy buying land and plotting a city in what had been a heavily wooded area along the Willamette River. With Pettygrove being from Portland, Maine, and Lovejoy being a native of Boston, they each wanted to give Stumptown the name of their hometown.

It came down to a coin flip, best two out of three. Pettygrove won, preventing the largest city in Oregon from forever being known as Boston.

Good thing, too. Natives would quickly grow weary of saying, “I’m from Boston; no, the other one” — a burden with which Vancouver residents surely can empathize.

Anyway, the legend is that the coin flip was necessary after a vote of residents ended in a tie, and it long has been told to demonstrate that every vote counts.

Except that it appears to have little foundation in fact. Details of the coin flip at OregonEncyclopedia.org and PDXHistory.com, along with an article from Boston Magazine and other outlets from the font of knowledge that is the internet, make no mention of a public vote ending in a tie prior to the coin flip.

An administrator at the Oregon Historical Society is quoted by Boston Magazine as saying of Pettygrove and Lovejoy: “They both had land here, and as they were plotting out the city lines, they started coming up with the names. Story has it, they had three coin tosses, and Portland came up two times out of three.”

The coin believed to be used is now known as the Portland Penny and has been on display at the historical society museum.

Admittedly, the truth is not as interesting as a tie vote leading to the coin flip. And it’s not as interesting as the various consequential elections that have gone down to the wire.

In 2002, Kevin Entze in Washington’s 26th Legislative District lost a Republican primary (Washington used to have party primaries) by one vote out of more than 11,000 cast. In 2017, a contest for the Virginia House of Delegates was determined by pulling a name out of bowl, and the draw decided control of the House. And last year, an election for a Republican precinct committee officer was decided by a coin flip from Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey. State law dictates the process for breaking a tie in elections.

There is no shortage of examples of elections both big and small being decided by a handful of votes — or fewer. That, indeed, reminds us that every vote counts. Even if they don’t all become the stuff of legends.

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