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Paul Greenberg: The morning after

BY PAUL GREENBERG Published: November 7, 2012

It's over at last. Now we know. Or do we? The voting may have ended, but the counting continues. Here's hoping that by the time these lines appear in print we'll know who'll be the next president of the United States.

Elections are supposed to provide finality in a democracy, and when they don't, when they just prolong the uncertainty, democracy has been deprived of decision. The country is denied clear leadership, the new president a clear mandate. Nobody wins if nobody wins.

Someone once said that final decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court aren't necessarily right; they're right because they're final. So it is with presidential elections. If they don't provide finality, if they don't mark The End of the campaign but only continue its uncertainties and divisions, they have failed.

See the Bush-Gore match of 2000, which went on for 36 days after the polls closed, leaving a residue of distrust. The bitterness of that contest may have faded over the next four years, but it never completely evaporated, continuing to poison the political atmosphere.

After every such hotly disputed election, there are calls to reform the electoral system. Its problems are evident, but the remedy for them remains unclear. The great challenge of all such discussions in not to point out the problems with the country's electoral system, but to propose a better one. And each alternative to it has its own problems.

With all its faults and eccentricities, a better electoral system than this one has yet to be suggested, or at least win enough support to be adopted. So the country struggles on with its time-tested Electoral College.

Like democracy itself, the present electoral system may be the worst ever devised — except for all the others. At least its dangers have been explored and debated time and again, complete with object lessons, while any theoretical substitute might work better only in theory.

And so Americans stick with the devil we know, rather than switch to an alternative untried or tested by history. Even at the risk of extending the tumult and uncertainty of a presidential campaign for another 36 days. Or longer.

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