PEOPLE who think their votes won't make a difference today ought to ask John Pica, Kweisi Mfume, David Blumberg or even the redoutable Parren J. Mitchell.
All of them won squeaker elections, in several cases by a single vote.
The sound of democracy in action is the clanging of voting booth levers. Yet there are a lot of reasons why fewer and fewer people are voting. They range from personal to providential.
One reason is that Americans are given too many opportunities to vote. In Baltimore, for example, there are elections in three of every four years. So there's a tendency to sit one out occasionally.
Another is that the largest bloc of voters in America today falls into the bracket of moderate to cynical. America appears to be overdosed on democracy. Voters are freaked out, dropped out and just plain fed up. There's the widespread notion that things and events are beyond their control, that elected officials are more concerned with re-election and with symbols such as Willie Horton and the flag than they are with real problems such as health care, unemployment and homelessness.
Body-counters and other election junkies like to cite the 1968 presidential election as one in which another half of a Democratic vote in each precinct would have given the presidency to Humbert H. Humphrey instead of Richard M. Nixon. There are about 250,000 precincts in the nation, and Nixon won by less than one-half of 1 percent of the vote. Aren't you sorry you didn't vote?
Another gasper occurred in 1960, when John F. Kennedy snatched the presidency from Nixon -- mainly in the back alleys of Chicago -- by fewer than 400,000 votes. (That year, and twice in the 19th century, the loser in the popular vote actually won the election.)
And, of course, President Lyndon Johnson won his first election to the U.S. Senate from Texas under dubious circumstances and by the dime-thin margin of 80 votes, earning him the sobriquet "Landslide Lyndon."
Closer to home, Sen. John Pica's heart almost shut down for maintenance last year as he trailed on primary election night. It wasn't until the election board's official count that he finally defeated the upstart Martin O'Malley by 47 votes.
In his first election to the City Council in 1979, Kweisi Mfume defeated Mary Adams by a mere three votes. And Mfume's predecessor in Congress, Parren J. Mitchell, won his first election in 1970 over veteran Rep. Samuel Friedel by a scant 37 votes.
The chairman of the city's Republican Central Committee, David Blumberg, won his first election to the committee by one vote, the same margin by which Councilman John Schaefer won his first seat on the city's Democratic Central Committee. And Cornell Dypski, of East Baltimore, once defeated Sen. George Della for a Maryland Senate seat by 23 votes.
In Prince George's County a couple of elections ago, Thomas Mooney sweated out re-election to the House of Delegates over a challenger, John D'Eustachio. Finally, after a recount, Mooney won by a single vote, proving the political adage that one vote's a majority and two's a hell of a majority.
In Somerset County, a contest for treasurer ended in a flat-out tie. A similar result occurred once in Baltimore city's 45th District, where there was a tie among candidates for the Republican State Central Committee.
In Baltimore in 1991, the only lines that are likely to be longer than those at the polls are the ones in unemployment offices and union hiring halls.
As more and more voters tune out of the electoral process, fewer and fewer voters are determining the results of elections.
Based on frequency of voting, it is estimated that 20 percent of the electorate controls 60 percent of the vote. These are the voters who turn out time after time, election after election. They are the voters who are on every candidate's target list. And these are the voters who used to make up that invisible election-day force called "the organization."
Elections have become predictable because voters have become predictable. The fewer eligible voters who vote, the easier it is to determine the outcome of elections. It's the voters who are packaged, not the candidates.
If you think one vote doesn't count, ask John Pica. So get out and vote. The candidate who's saved by a single vote might be your very own.
Frank A. DeFilippo writes on Maryland politics.