Politics

Who Won? Sometime's There's No Real Answer

In the closest elections, there are issues impossible to resolve.
by | April 2005
 

The actor Joe E. Brown earned film immortality at the end of "Some Like It Hot" when he accepted with a smile the news that the woman he'd fallen in love with was actually a man. "Well, nobody's perfect," he said. That may be an attitude that voters will have to adopt when it comes to election outcomes. No one likes to see a close election turn on questions of illegal votes, machine error or overlooked ballots, but there is probably no way to get around the fact that mistakes are inevitable. "You can't make a perfect election," says Washington Governor Christine Gregoire.

That's a point Gregoire finds herself emphasizing over and over these days. She took office a few months ago after a hand-recount declared her the winner against Republican Dino Rossi by 129 votes. Republicans are challenging the decision in court.

Clearly, finding ways to achieve results that are both fair and decisive is a priority for officials at every level of government, and rightly so. "The whole issue of what to do about a post-election challenge has been very much on lawmakers' and policymakers' minds, especially given the fact that the country's politics are so evenly divided," says Doug Chapin, director of the Election Reform Information Project.

President Bush's 2004 reelection margin was greater than any commonly defined "margin of litigation" (although there are still lawsuits demanding a recount in Ohio), but plenty of other contests finished close enough last fall that voting irregularities had to have affected the ultimate outcome. In North Carolina, in response to a still- contested election for state school superintendent, legislators last month passed a bill clarifying that they, and not the courts, are the final arbiters of which ballots are good and which ones can be thrown out.

Making sure that every vote counts is such a motherhood-and-apple-pie idea that it's no wonder politicians are rushing to find ways to reassure voters. Gregoire lost no time in March in embracing the recommendations of a task force she appointed to amend the state voting process. "Our major problem right now is that the public has been convinced that there's not credibility in the system," she says.

But even as she endorses greater uniformity in regulating provisional ballots and deals with protests about too much independence for partisan county officials, Gregoire reflects that for every step in her topsy-turvy vote recount, there were already statutes offering guidance about how to proceed. If Republicans in Washington can prove their current complaints that felons voted in the election, they'll certainly have a legitimate beef, but the reality is that in a race that close, there's no way both sides will end up happy.

In American politics, there always has to be a loser. Determining who that is will never be as neat as we'd like. "You get the occasional election outcome that's so close that it turns out errors can have an effect," says Fred Woocher, an attorney who represented the loser in last fall's disputed mayoral race in San Diego. "It's a humongous task to accurately count all the votes and make sure that all the laws were complied with."

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