Jewish World Review Nov. 9, 2004 / 25 Mar-Cheshvan 5765

Paul Greenberg

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Election day meditation: The calm between two storms | There's something special about an American Election Day. One day the presidential campaign is on full speed as it approaches the finish line, complete with brass band, calliope and general hoopla. The next, the hullabaloo is gone, the shouts shushed, the speeches shelved. It's as if everything had been put on hold for 12 blessed hours.

A strange, unaccustomed quiet descends, and something almost like perspective sets in. Election Day is the calm between two storms — the wild campaign and the wilder count to come. It comes like a break from ordinary time, as a kind of national sabbath.

Which is the real America? Is it the crossfire of raucous debate and dueling commercials, the general razzmatazz and partisan take on every news story? Or is it the confessional quiet of the voting booth, where at last everything boils down to the single citizen and his or her conscience?

America is both, of course, the melee and the sense of peace.

Election Day is the surreal pause between two political explosions — first the campaign, then the litigation. How I hated to see that evening sun go down, and the brouhaha return. For a few brief hours, reason had reigned.

Election Day no longer has all the unique elements that once set it apart, what with early voting and the battalions of lawyers waiting to pounce. And all those doubts waiting offstage. The big question this Election Day wasn't who would be elected president, but whether anyone would be. Clearly, quickly and decisively. The shadow of 2000 and its nigh-endless, post-election election still hovered.

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The experts offered smooth assurance: "The 2000 election was an extraordinary event, unlikely to be seen again in any of our lifetimes. It had been over a hundred years since the winner of the popular vote did not also win a majority in the electoral college...." — "After the People Vote/A guide to the Electoral College." (American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C., 2004).

But there was still a rustle of uncertainty behind the electoral curtain. Would the whole process be paralyzed again, as in 2000?

Some reforms had been made over the past four years, but not enough. A question hung over the whole campaign: Would this election be any smoother than the last one?

The uncertainty was not the fault of the antique electoral system, even if it, too, needs adjusting here and there. (Why have individual electors at all — so they can violate their pledge and gum up the works? Why not just assign electoral votes to the contenders and eliminate the middle men?)

But this Election Day, the system ticked steadily on, like a dependable grandfather clock. It proceeded to weigh millions of individual votes, and refine them down to the magic 270 electoral votes that one of the contenders would need to win, so the country could move on.

But if a decisive state could not count its votes accurately, it would be the electoral system that would be blamed. Even though it is on the state level where reforms were most needed.

Not all the calm of Election Day could hide the fear that, in theory at least, a perfect electoral storm was brewing:

What if a crucial state, like Florida in 2000, or Ohio this year, could not produce a single, clear slate of electors?

What if some electors rebelled — the Faithless Electors, they're called - and refused to cast their ballots as instructed by the voters?

What if Colorado decided to split its electoral votes, joining Nebraska and Maine? There really ought to be a law against a state dividing its electoral votes, or rather a constitutional amendment, in order to preserve the winner-take-all feature of the electoral college. That way, the electoral vote magnifies and legitimates the popular vote, assuring a quick, clear result.

What if those provisional ballots proved crucial? How many would stay provisional long after Election Day, tying up the courts and preventing a decisive verdict?

What if this and what if that? The electoral hobgoblins were all lurking out there, like the ominous musical score behind some idyllic country scene in a Hitchcock movie.

All those fears and uncertainties were part of the fragile peace of this Election Day. And they were all the more worrisome for being invisible.

But the American people went ahead and cast their ballots in good order, turning the day into a solemn convocation. It was as if the whole American people were assembling in chapel. Because an American election isn't only an election; it is an act of faith.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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