Major elections are meant to be enjoyed at a distance, namely 2,000 votes separating winner and loser. Anything closer and you become witness to one of the ugly truths about democracy: Our voting system is flawed. Not in a “we need to scrap it” way, but rather in a “technology and humans are shockingly unreliable at counting” way. Minnesota Senate race, welcome to the freak show that is Recount 2008.
With the recount scheduled to start this morning, the roles have already moved beyond Democrat and Republican. The candidates have become Underdog and Frontrunner, with specific traits for each.
The Underdog, Al Franken, has nothing to lose and everything to gain. Underdogs try to look stately while searching for any potential votes to put them over the top; they bank whatever is left on hope, because it’s all they’ve got.
The Frontrunner’s role is far more complicated as Frontrunners have everything to lose, but Sen. Norm Coleman is giving us a textbook example of what you do. Frontrunners start by insisting that regardless of how close the final tally is, there is no need to recount. The Frontrunner knows the machines we trust for elections, even the non-Diebold ones, can misread thousands of ballots, so massive swings for both candidates are very likely.
The creation of a circus
The Frontrunner then sends lawyers (and encourages media pundits) to attack everything. They slime people, discredit long-established and fair processes, and even make things up all in an effort to turn the recount into a circus. In this case, we’ve heard so far that the secretary of state is biased and unable to conduct a fair recount, that the final pre-recount tally fluctuation is proof the fix is in (even though it still favors Coleman by 215 votes), that people who can’t fill out a ballot correctly are unfit to have their vote count, and where exactly have those ballots been? Hopefully not in someone’s car or frat house pizza box or drainage ditch on the side of a highway.
Why do Frontrunners (and assorted allies) do this? There is a fairness aspect, and there is also a clear intimidation factor. They want all officials who have anything to do with the final count to know they will be labeled partisan hacks if the Underdog wins. There is also something far more mean-spirited involved. In the event they lose, Frontrunners want their supporters to feel as if the election were stolen. They have to plant the seed of doubt early to convince as many people as possible that there is no way the Underdog could win fairly.
What is the difference between the greatest injustice in history and a triumphant victory for American democracy? One thousand votes, give or take a hundred. While Coleman is trying to make sure there is great public discord if he loses, he still could win by a thousand. If he does, will he thank the secretary of state for the fair recount? Will the partisan hacks in print, radio and television apologize for calling into question the integrity of people they have never met? Of course not. They will take credit for scaring the opposition into being fair.
If this were reversed, Franken’s people would be taking the Frontrunner role and Coleman would be waiting for a sign of hope. I pray 500 votes or more decides this Senate race; then the loser may well concede, leaving only hard feelings. Heaven forbid this race gets decided by 25 votes or less; then we will go to round three, the court cases where lawyers from both sides will spend hours arguing intent on ballots to get a winner. At that point, God help us all.
Matthew McNeil is the host of a radio show on KSTP AM 1500.