Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In The Balance

Time to dig up another time capsule ...

Recently NPR gave some air time to considering a quaint tech gadget that was all the rage ten years ago at the start of the new decade, century, and millennium. What was it? The PDA, of course. The Personal Digital Assistant that was going to replace all our Daytimers with their annual paper refills. (Remember those?) Now we've just upgraded our mobile phones instead, and we're starting to wonder just how many more things they may be able to do for us until they're implanted at birth.

But there was a more pressing issue back at the turn of the millenium -- namely, who was the President going to be? We weren't sure, we were still counting and recounting the votes. Meanwhile the ball dropped in Times Square and the national juggernaut rolled headlong into the future. This is what I was thinking about it at the time:

“Don’t follow leaders ...”
- Bob Dylan

“Where are the people going? I am their leader, and I must follow them.”

“Freedom of choice is what you’ve got ... freedom from choice is what you want.”
- Devo

November 8, 2000. I don’t have a President today.

This is an unusual situation. I have always had a President, my whole life. It’s a fact I have always taken for granted, like having air to breathe. Now, suddenly, the situation is uncertain. However temporary it may be (and it surely it will have been resolved by the time you read this), the absence of a leader has made me see things in a different light. I feel as if  the nation is running on autopilot. There’s still someone at the helm, but he’s packing his bags to leave and seems less interested than he did when he was first charging into the job with a sense of energy and excitement. This is the time when his successor should be getting ready to take over. He only has about two months to form a whole Executive Branch of bureaucrats from an assortment of friends and hangers-on and people-to-be-appointed-later. It’s barely enough time. But he can’t even get started (whoever he is) because he doesn’t know if he’s really going to be President yet. The election is still hanging in the balance.

This is an uncomfortable situation for us. As a people, we hate ties. We invented extra innings, playoffs and “sudden-death overtime” to eliminate stalemate from our sports. Probably the Founding Fathers thought they were doing the same thing when they invented the Electoral College, placing the decision in the hands of a smaller group of people who were expected to be intelligent and practical enough to come to a clear decision.  And of course they thought of everything, as they always did, spelling out a series of steps to follow in case of a split decision, ending up (if I remember correctly) with the Speaker of the House stepping into the job in a worst-case scenario that would leave all other contenders out in the cold. But of course, they didn’t anticipate that our politics would come to be dominated by two massive and equally matched parties who would grow accustomed to thinking of 52% of the vote as a “clear mandate” from the electorate. They didn’t anticipate how often the vote might be this close.

As far as we can tell with our evidently inaccurate counting methods (more on that anon), one candidate is ahead nationally by fewer than 200,000 votes out of nearly 100 million, or about two-tenths of a percent.  The other candidate is ahead in the last remaining state he needs to win the electoral ballot by fewer than 2,000 votes out of about 6 million, or only three one-hundredths of a percent. If the entire electorate were reduced to only ten thousand voters, this would represent a single one of them -- a wishy-washy individual who was unable to come to a firm decision -- having a change of mood, or perhaps sneezing at the moment of punching the ballot and inadvertantly making the wrong choice.

Think that could never happen? I heard something worse reported on National Public Radio, an example of someone who was deprived of her vote by a combination of confusion and a poorly trained polling-place worker. A young woman voting for the first time was confronted by the confusing ballot. Suspecting that she had made a mistake, she asked the (poorly trained) polling-place worker to tell her who she had voted for. When the worker confirmed she had voted for the wrong candidate, the young woman asked for a new ballot, as she was told she could do by instructions printed right on the ballot itself. But the (poorly trained) election official told her she could not change it once it was punched, took it from her, and put it in the ballot box! Not fair! Everyone knows that they’re supposed to hand it back to you and let you put it in the box with your own hand, or tear it up if you want to -- at least, everyone except this particular (poorly trained) polling-place worker.

Does an isolated incident like this make a difference? Maybe not, by itself. Maybe not, assuming that a number of such errors might tend to be made in different directions, cancelling each other out. But other things are coming to light as the recount proceeds. Twenty-nine thousand votes were nearly lost from a computer disk. Someone was accused of attempting to take a ballot box home with them. A courier showed up a day late with a package of ballots that he forgot to deliver on election day. No doubt as the process continues other such incidents will come to light, variously amusing and appalling. We will begin to ask ourselves how accurate it is possible to be in any undertaking of this size, with so many opportunites for human error, and with the result wavering at four decimal places. If the recount comes up different, will we do it again? If we do it again, will it give us the same result or a still different one?

I suspect we could get a different answer every time, which is why we won’t do it more than once. Such a level of uncertainty would threaten our confidence too much. We depend on ourselves to have opinions and express them. We rely on the idea that the best candidate will win out in a contest. We trust ourselves to support the best, and to make our decisions clearly.  All this fuzziness, this gray area in between, is too disconcerting. It’s as if our mechanistic concept of a quantifiable vote has been replaced by a new quantum theory in which results, like those of the pre-election polls, are qualified by “plus or minus two percent.” Like the location of an electron, which can be predicted only statistically, our votes have become a trend or tendency rather than a firm quantity. Like the photon, sometimes wave and other times particle, some people managed to vote for an indeterminate candidate, or to vote for two candidates at the same time.

It’s easy to imagine how things will turn out. Even though the recount comes up with a new answer, it will still lean in the same direction. However obvious it is by then that the result is within the margin of error of our ability to count the votes, the losing candidate will say, What the heck, and bow to the decision of the people.  Never mind that nationally he received more votes. Never mind that the winning candidate only has a 48% plurality, due to the effect of pesky upstart rival political parties. It may be wrong, but it’s the way the system works. And above all, we want to believe that the system works.

Meanwhile we proceed, full steam ahead, running on inertia and our innate lack of need for leadership.  Blind, rudderless, a juggernaut, the ship of state sails on. While this situation persists, I for one am enjoying the ambiguity. It’s a sense of freedom I haven’t felt for a long time, and may never feel again. An anarchistic moment of hiatus in the political continuum. A time to  explore new possibilities -- bigger chunks of the vote going to other parties, run-off elections, coalitions between minor parties to dominate major ones ... the possibilities are unlimited. Enjoy it while you can.

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