The Longest Election Day

Early morning in the dining room of an elementary school, its tile walls hung with cardboard cutouts of pumpkins and Pilgrims, its air so inert that the faint suggestion of a thousand tuna sandwiches seems to float in the atmosphere like the ghosts of lunches past. The lines are long, the poll workers slow and the New York City Board of Elections, legendary for being a Bermuda Triangle into which all salient information disappears forever, does not disappoint: next to my name it says that there is no signature on file, that I must vote by affidavit. Not for me the majesty of the closed curtain and the metal lever; instead there is a flimsy piece of paper like a standardized test, with the printed warning that if I make a mark where it does not belong my franchise vanishes--poof!--my vote void, my claim to the democratic process nullified. Once filled in, the affidavit is added to an untidy pile gathering on the seat of a chair. I wonder if it will ever get to where it is supposed to be going, whether it will be opened and counted. I do not know.

A leap of faith into the unknown is the essence of the democratic process, but we've certainly overdone it this time round. Since Tuesday evening this election has had more personalities than Sybil: a victory, a squeaker, a draw, a recount. Never before in the history of the nation has one presidential candidate called the other to rescind his concession. ("Don't get snippy about it," the vice president was said to respond to what must have been the governor's utter incredulity.) The citizens of 21st-century America are used to immediate information gratification, to tracking stocks from an airplane with their laptops or getting the headlines from a Palm Pilot on desert-island vacations. As Election Day gave way to election night to election week, not knowing made them crazy.

But here's the truth: even when the vote totals are clear, we never know what we've really gotten into the morning after a presidential election. Who could have guessed, on election night in 1960, that Kennedy and Nixon, who during the race were often portrayed as a political Tweedledee and Tweedledum, would take such divergent paths that Americans would come to think of one as Prince John and the other as Darth Vader? Who could have predicted that Franklin Roosevelt, whose ebullient extended family referred to him disparagingly as "Feather Duster," whose cousin wrote when he was elected, "it's too big a country to ruin in a few years," would be enshrined by history as perhaps our greatest leader?

Who could have known that Lincoln, a president so unprepared that he thought he could give orders directly to naval officers without going through the secretary of the Navy, would brilliantly guide a fractured nation through war? Or that Lyndon Johnson would successfully pursue a revolutionary agenda of civil rights, then founder on the shoals of the Vietnam War? Who could have guessed in 1992 that Bill Clinton would preside over the greatest peacetime prosperity in this nation's history and yet ruin his reputation with a sex-and-lies soap-opera drama of staggering stupidity?

When the time comes to close the curtain and push the lever, the voters know mostly that they have been spun endlessly, battered by the opinions of the pundits, the arguments at the office, the blare of the commercials. They know the candidates have been frozen into the ice of the rehearsed stump speech by fear of failure, fear of losing, fear of them. But they know, too, that from time to time the people who lead us rise to greatness, in ways impossible to predict when they are waving from the stage beneath the bunting. Like playing the slots in Vegas, there is just enough of a payoff in democracy to keep us coming back for more.

People have struggled, suffered, even died for this right, to push into stuffy cafeterias and become one note in the vox populi. There was Medgar Evers, fighting in World War II and then coming home to discover the door to the county clerk's office blocked by an army of hostile whites, and Alice Paul being imprisoned and force-fed after becoming an embarrassment by standing outside the White House with a sign demanding suffrage. Women have had the vote for only 80 years. Black Americans had to wait for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Once there were poll taxes and literacy tests. And in the beginning there was race, gender and wealth: the Founding Fathers extended the right to vote only to white men who owned property, making it scarcely a right at all.

Yet in the last week some Americans find themselves once again wondering whether they've been disenfranchised, this time by a badly constructed ballot in Florida. The irony to the outcry in Palm Beach is that the most common bar in recent years to voter participation has been individual inertia. Americans have so taken for granted the casual privileges of participation and pluralism that in 1996 fewer than half of them voted for president. The turnout of 2000 was, at almost 51 percent, something of an improvement. Perhaps this razor-thin race renewed belief in the power of one; more important, perhaps this photo finish will cement it for the future.

An election marks the end of the affair; it puts paid to the seduction of the many by the few. Pretty words, fulsome promises. We wind up married, but to whom, to what? We cannot always predict with certainty the future leader from the winning candidate. Some men grow in the job; others are diminished by its demands and its grandeur. Kierkegaard warned, "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards." In 20 years, perhaps, we will truly know what the voters wrought this week. We will know who this president really was, what he really stood for, which occasions caused him to rise, which to fall. In the days after the election we awaited the outcome. But time will tell the real results.