Jewish World Review Nov. 6, 2002 / 1 Kislev 5763

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

The morning after | Yesterday was a beautiful calm between two storms. There is always something sacramental about an American Election Day. It still has a Currier & Ives, Norman Rockwell, Thomas Hart Benton flavor.

In the heart's eye, there are little lines outside clapboard churches in New England, country folk entering a general store, urban moms and dads walking the kid into P.S. 98 so they can vote on the way to work .

OK, so maybe it was never picture-perfect, what with the dead rising up to vote for Mayor Daley on Chicago's South Side, voting machines playing "Home Sweet Home" or whatever tune the Longs called south of the border down Louisiana way, ballot boxes disappearing in faubusian Arkansas .

But however long it took you to vote this year , there was still the satisfaction of duty done, the pleasure of good company, the comfort of tired jokes, the familiar faces of old friends and the good manners of new ones. The whole hurry-up-and-wait atmosphere had something familiar about it, a cross between the Army and registering for college.

Here in deepest Arkansas, only one county seems to have completely botched its voting records. Naturally it's the most populous one smack in the center of the state. Naturally it's where I vote. I got off easy with only a two-hour wait Saturday at a clean, well-lighted Little Rock bank, complete with coffee and cookies. Thank you.

After it was done, I said one prayer of thanks (Americans can never be too thankful) and another for the folks who would choose to brave the election day crowds. Come E-Day, they'd be at the tender mercies of the clanking election machinery of Pulaski County, Ark., the poor devils.

For a newspaperman voting early, and always grateful for good copy, there was this brief conversation down the line:

Confused Voter: "What's this mean, Ballot Style?"

Obliging Election Official: "That number means you get the same ballot here as you'd get at your precinct Election Day."

Voter: "But my daughter and I live at the same address, and our Ballot Styles are a different number. Why is that?"

Official (authoritatively): "That's because things are screwed up."

How refreshing. At last an honest answer from somebody in charge. Everybody laughed. Note to officeholders in general: It's a wonder what simple candor can accomplish. It's not the incompetence that irks -- well, not just the incompetence -- but the refusal to admit it, the pretense that everything's just fine-and-dandy, the eternal political game-playing.

Election Day may have been wearying for lots of good voters -- and good election officials -- but for those who already had their little I Voted stickers, it was a wondrous pause in the season's occupations. We got a whole day between the endless foofaraw of the campaign and the start of the lawyering. It was a precious respite, the eye of the electoral hurricane.

For 12 precious hours, the fever broke. Or at least abated. This morning, as the sun rose above trodden confetti and stale champagne, the post-election election began. The spin doctors were still competing, this time with equal-but-opposite analyses of The Meaning of the Election.

Though I write these words before the polls have closed, I do so in perfect faith that the sheer contrariness of my state's voters will shine through in today's results. It may not be another 1968, when Arkansas showed its complete contempt for ideological consistency. (The state went for populist demagogue George Wallace for president, aristocratic snob J. William Fulbright for U.S. senator, and fairly liberal Republican Winthrop Rockefeller for governor all in the same election.) But there'll still be enough quirks in the returns this year to delight any aficionado of Southern politics and folkways, but I repeat myself.

A Frenchman named Tocqueville, with his usual eloquence, and with the fascination and insight only a foreigner could bring to an American ritual, compared a national election in America with a kind of great, slow-building, then overwhelming flood -- a regularly scheduled crisis that overwhelms all in its path.

And then comes the morning after when "as soon as the choice is determined, this ardor is dispelled, calm returns, and the river, which had nearly broken its banks, sinks to its usual level ."

Or at least it does when the votes can be found and counted, the lawyers stay out of it, and sanity returns. Which is why swift, clear, orderly elections are so important. Once we might have taken them for granted but not after the 36-day hiatus two years ago between Election Day and a clear result.

So cross your fingers and hope that, by the time you read this, the results are in even in Pulaski County, Ark., and the river is back in its banks -- not two feet high and still a-risin'.

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