Unlike 99.9 percent of the nation, I didn’t think that yesterday’s election represented a choice between good and evil. When I pressed the little button on the touch-screen voting machine, I did not do so feeling that the defeat of my chosen candidate would signify the onset of Armageddon. Regardless of the outcome, I knew I would neither be elated nor plunged into despair.
Maybe that ambivalence makes me too odd to offer any advice on this post-election morning. Or maybe it’s just the credential I need to point out that even if you are a die-hard Bush supporter from rural Texas or an angry pro-Kerry liberal from urban Boston, the worst possible outcome today would not have been the victory of your opponent. The worst possible outcome would be, and will always be, a repeat of Florida 2000: lawyers, spin doctors, courts and protests that would drag out the result past last night. That is because a disputed outcome, whoever is doing the disputing, would do far more damage to the country in the long term than anyone’s worst Bush nightmare or anyone’s worst-case Kerry scenario, whether a declaration of war against Syria or the nationalization of private medicine or the appointment of a Supreme Court justice who believes in creationism.
For — contrary to popular belief — numbers of votes alone never confer political legitimacy on a candidate. The legitimacy of the presidency, and the legitimacy of our political system, derive, rather, from the whole process: the primaries, the campaign, the ads, the arguments, the debates, the fundraising dinners, the newspaper articles and, above all, the act of turning up to vote. Yesterday there were huge lines to vote all around the country, as if this were South Africa, or some East European country emerging from totalitarianism. At the polling station where I voted, the wait was more than an hour — more, in other words, than anyone would willingly wait at a shop or at a bus stop — and I didn’t see anyone leave. Yet if you think about it, the fact that millions of people bother to turn out for elections knowing full well that their votes are mathematically insignificant, particularly in states such as mine where the outcome is not in question, isn’t actually rational: It’s a leap of faith. Against all the evidence, we somehow believe that it matters.
One disputed election didn’t destroy the majority’s faith in that extended democratic process. But nor, arguably, would a few cases of voter fraud in Ohio yesterday, or a few examples of egregious voter suppression in Florida, however critical the districts in which they took place and however much they affected the result. Let’s face it: If it’s really that close, as it was in 2000, either candidate could plausibly be declared the victor. And the best outcome for the country would always be for the apparent loser to concede and for the nation to hand victory, quickly, to whoever the apparent winner might be. What would, over time, destroy the majority’s faith in the process is a system in which every election was litigated or a system in which the result was regularly and doggedly disputed.
It isn’t impossible that we could be evolving toward such a system. This year, after all, we’ve already had the pre-election lawsuits. But I hope that by the time you are reading this column the losers have been grown-up enough to dispense with the post-election disputes. If, contrary to predictions, we’ve got an unexpectedly decisive result, I also hope that both parties will conclude in the future that the investment in lawyers isn’t worth the money. Finally, I hope that everyone, winners and losers, has the presence of mind to accept the verdict, whatever it is, and — while the nation is fighting not one but several wars — unite behind whoever seems to have won.