While most Americans eagerly anticipate tomorrow's vote for president, a threat is hanging over this much-longed-for conclusion to a bitterly fought campaign.
There is a clear and present danger that another close race will end in no certain winner, and that the accompanying lawsuits and bipartisan recriminations will undermine the ability for whomever's ultimately tapped as winner to govern.
Of course, the only sure way of avoiding a repeat of the legal farce that the 2000 election dissolved into is for President George W. Bush or Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry to win a decisive victory.
But failing that, it may well be that we'll be doomed to weeks of backbiting and pure partisan spin on obscure election laws as Republicans and Democrats seek to count any vote that they think is for their candidate, and disallow votes that might be for their opponent.
As it stands, the core supporters of Bush and Kerry seem to think that the only way their man can lose is if the other side cheats either through massive voter fraud (as GOP stalwarts suspect the Democrats are planning) or voter-intimidation plots that will scare people away from the polls (as many Democrats openly charge that the Republicans are planning).
At this stage, there's not much we can do about the poisonous atmosphere that breeds such cynicism and distrust. Nor, given the neatly divided nature of the electorate, can we anticipate a landslide that would make such arguments moot.
But as we prepare to cope with the possibility of another national postelection trauma, it might be appropriate to look at another factor for part of the answer as to why close elections have become such a problem in this country: absentee voting.
Criticizing any measure that was obviously designed to make voting more convenient and easier to do takes a degree of chutzpah. After all, absentee ballots enable the sick, the infirm and the elderly to vote without the trouble and pain that might accompany a visit to a polling station, along with the lines and fuss that go with it.
They also allow people who cannot take time away from work, those who travel as part of their business, college students and others who might be away from home on election day to vote. As such, this helps boost voter turnout and prevents some from being disenfranchised by circumstances they cannot control.
But the precipitous rise in the use of absentee ballots in the past few years has accentuated a trend that has gradually devalued not only the tradition and ceremony that used to be attached to Election Day, but also the idea of going to vote as a civic sacrament.
Tabulating the huge numbers of absentee ballots, which must be done by hand, and are, almost by definition, more susceptible to human counting errors, must be considered a major factor in assessing the possibility that voters must wait days, even weeks, before a winner is declared.
Making this situation worse is the widespread use of absentee ballots by Americans not living in this country. Millions of expatriates were solicited to register as voters by mail; hundreds of thousands did so and are planning to vote.
In Israel, a great deal of attention was focused on voting by those Israelis who had emigrated from the United States, but who retain their American citizenship. Voter-registration drives were conducted by both Republicans and Democrats in Israel this year, and will produce a lot of votes in battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania. And, given the fact that polls show Israelis favoring Bush, while most of their American Jewish counterparts are backing Kerry, has provided pundits with some food for thought.
But the overseas electoral map is as complicated as the domestic one. Americans in Paris were thought to be natural Kerry voters, as were those in other places where Bush policies were unpopular.
It all makes for interesting copy, but isn't there something slightly disturbing about American elections being decided by people who've made the choice to live elsewhere permanently?
As it happens, Israel itself does not allow those out of the country to vote in its elections. Only Israeli diplomatic personnel on duty overseas may cast ballots. The contrast between our more cavalier attitude and the Israeli practice ought to give us pause, especially because Israelis seem to understand that their votes are having a direct impact on crucial war-and-peace issues.
AN ALMOST SACRED MOMENT
Even more to the point, the whole trend toward making voting more convenient seems to have undermined one of the great civic traditions of American democracy: going to the polls on Election Day.
I vividly recall the awe I felt when my mother schlepped me along and took me into the booth with her to let me observe the sacred moment of casting her ballot. I couldn't wait until I was old enough to vote myself, and still remember the thrill I got from registering and then voting for the first time when I turned 18.
While actually voting in person may seem like an anachronism in the age of the Internet, I think there's something to be said for it. The ceremony is one of the great traditions of American politics, and the trend toward devaluing a trip to the polls and allowing absentee voting for pure convenience, rather than real need, is troubling.
While I'm all for encouraging everyone to vote, I'm put off by the idea that requiring a degree of effort to exercise your franchise is restrictive or even unfair. Voting at the polls is a public affirmation of belief in our way of life, as well as the right of a free citizenry to choose its leaders. As such, it's as close to being a public sacrament as we can get in a secular society.
The fact that widespread absentee voting complicates the tabulating process ought to remind us that if more Americans were prepared to just show up, we might not spend as much time watching electoral officials sift through thousands of absentee ballots in the weeks after a close election. That's why the decision of some states to allow citizens to vote in person at designated polling stations is a far better idea than making absentee voting easier.
If, as Woody Allen once said, that "80 percent of success is showing up," what's wrong with asking those voters who are physically able to do so in person? Isn't democracy worth a degree of inconvenience?