NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Justin Skenyon and Ethan Farrell with their one-vote edge in Narragansett School Committee elections have captured a rare spot in state history with this razor-thin margin.
While the single vote margin is not unprecedented in Rhode Island – a City Council race in Central Falls also came down to a one vote margin in 2016 – it is quite rare. And the two school committee candidates can also find company with founding father and former U.S. vice president and president Thomas Jefferson.
He was boxed into a tie-vote and then one-vote margin for victory in the election of 1800. That every vote counts was not lost on these three candidates separated by 220 years.
“I think my race is a testament to why you should vote for sure. How one vote can count in race,” Farrell, 30, told The Independent this week on the eve of a recount scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 19, at the Board of Elections in Cranston.
Incumbent Skenyon’s one-vote lead over newcomer Farrell is 2,752 to 2,751 going into the Thursday recount. They are each hold an 11.7% share of the nonpartisan school committee race.
Jefferson’s election started with a tie vote in electoral ballots. It ended up in a U.S. House of Representatives’ special February 1801 session. After 36 ballots, Jefferson won only by a single extra vote over the number needed.
One person, one vote is important and can make a difference, history shows, the school committee candidates told The Independent in interviews about their contest.
Skenyon, 29, quipped, “It doesn’t feel great. It’s hysterical in a very like, Wow, this feel likes one of the footnotes in history. You know it’s technically possible, but you never think it’s going to happen to you.”
In Narragansett, this is a non-partisan race in which seats are awarded to candidates running in order of highest to lowest vote-getters.
“It’s been a roller coaster to be sure. Just trying to keep your sanity. That’s all everyone wants to talk about. You go for a coffee and that’s what the conversation is all about,” said Farrell, who works in his parents business at Sunset Farms.
“I was definitely a little surprised. The way the next day happened, I have some questions,” said Ferrell, who requested the recount.
An Election Official’s View
Theresa Donovan, Narragansett town clerk, is also the town’s supervising elections official. She sets up, runs and monitors elections. She’s been doing this for nearly 40 years in different towns in Rhode Island.
“It’s unusual for a political race to end just one vote apart, but close races on the local level are more common than you might think,” she explained.
Being from the smallest state in the union, with only four electoral votes, Rhode Islanders often feel that their individual votes have little to no impact on national level elections, Donovan said about her experiences with connecting with voters about voting.
“But nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to local elections. This would include voting on local questions, participating in a financial town meeting or choosing local elected officials such as school committee and council members,” she said.
Donovan said that the pass-fail or approve-reject questions on referendums can have a very small margin, depending upon how divided a community is on the question.
The consequences of voting – or failing to vote – on a local question can have ramifications for many years, the town clerk said, adding that local questions often involve the borrowing of money or reorganization of government, important parts of self-government.
Seats on town councils and school committees go to the top vote getters in each race.
“The margin between the person with just enough votes to win and the person just edged out can be extremely small. These are the races often subject to recounts to be sure every ballot was accurately cast and tabulated,” she said.
Interested parties will witness the recount process and may even examine the ballots if there is any concern about markings that call into question the voter’s intention. Yet, it all comes down to impact with the devil-in-the-details approach.
“Who wins that last seat can have a big impact on the future operation of the public body, as this could shift the majority party in partisan elections one way or the other,” she said.
“In all cases, every vote matters. On the local level, this is most evident. Because we have a representative form of government, elections are usually the only time individuals get to cast a vote,” she said.
“I’d Rather Be One Vote Ahead”
For his part in seeking re-election to a third term, Skenyon said, “I’d rather be a vote ahead rather than a vote behind. This has never been this close before.”
Both candidates offered various reasons for the tight race. They agreed that two-weeks of early voting and increased mail ballots as an answer to avoid going to the polls on Election Day brought out more voters.
Ferrell added, “I think the library was the focal point of the whole election. There was definitely a delay that everyone was fed up with. Put more people in the mix as well the presidential races and anything can happen.”
Skenyon agreed that another draw bringing out voters was a controversy surrounding support the library and a referendum related to bond spending for renovating a new location for the Maury Loontjens Memorial Library.
“While this most likely drew more people out to vote and while (also) voting for their town council choice, they also had the opportunity to vote for other candidates they might not normally be voting for,” he said.
Ferrell said also that another part of the this election was the gyrating ride since Election Day – far longer than presidential candidates Joseph Biden and Donald Trump needed to wait for their results.
Yet, a cliff-hanger is a cliff-hanger regardless of the office.
“From election night, early numbers looked good. In-person looked good. As mail-ins started to come in, I held 5th place. Then it became up and down. I think that was the hardest part – the initial win and then having it pulled away.
“And then losing it by 18 by Wednesday after noon and Friday I get call back and I’m back within three votes – went from 18 down to three down – then more ballots were counted put him and me within one vote,” he recalled.
Skenyon looked at that ride and offered, “I totally understand where people are coming from when they say their vote doesn’t matter. But it does matter when you least expect it. It matters to me, and it mattered here in this instance.”