At the end of Election Day, will we know who is the next president?
BY MARK BROWN November 5, 2012 8:34PM
Voters cast their ballots early Tuesday morning in Evergreen Park. | Larry Ruehl~Sun-Times Media
- After the debates and commercials, it is time for voters to act
- Obama and Romney (and Springsteen and Kid Rock) enter home stretch
- Obama makes last pitch with Boss, Jay-Z in Ohio
- Check your polling place — it might have changed
- Sneed: He’s still got game
- Early N.H. results for Obama vs. Romney: 5-5 tie in Dixville Notch
- High traffic crashes elections site
- Pregnant mom votes while in labor
Updated: December 7, 2012 6:26AM
Finally, the long campaign is over. Tuesday we vote, and by bedtime, we’ll know whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will be our president for the next four years.
Or will we?
Maybe not, I’m afraid to say.
While I will join America’s election administrators Tuesday morning in a prayer that whoever wins the presidential race has the decency to do so decisively, there is more than an outside chance we won’t be so fortunate.
If the race turns out to be as close as many have predicted, with the final outcome depending on an unclear result from a single state, most likely Ohio, then the uncertainty could drag out for days or weeks until all the ballots are counted — and recounted.
Instead of an anxious nation held captive by “hanging chads” as in the 2000 Bush-Gore race, the citizenry of 2012 could soon be getting an education on the ins-and-outs of “provisional ballots.”
A more farfetched scenario has a tie vote in the Electoral College dragging this into the new year, a possibility I once thought cute and now prefer not to contemplate.
Rather than allow this to take us by surprise, however, it’s better to talk out the possibilities in advance to allay the anxiety.
Close elections can be a lot of fun, unless they are still close when the initial counting is finished, at which point they can get ugly very quickly.
Everyone would like to believe that elections are a simple matter of casting the votes and tallying them but when you pull back the curtain on the actual election mechanics — as happens in a recount — what you quickly find is that the system is full of legal ambiguities and uncertainties.
We’ve been through this in the 2000 election with the Florida recount, and while the eventual result wasn’t much fun for those of us of the Democratic persuasion, I would stipulate that we survived. It was the start of eight long years, but we survived.
There are still Democrats who think the election was stolen from Gore, a belief I do not share, though I got plenty riled up for a time.
Nobody wants to see an election decided by which side has the best lawyers, but it’s better than deciding based on which side has the most guns.
With that in mind, both campaigns say they have legal teams ready to parachute into any too-close-to-call state.
I was surprised to learn Monday that Burt Odelson, a local election law specialist who often represents Democrats but was part of the Bush recount team in Florida in 2000, isn’t among them.
Odelson, who may have made himself too hot to handle by bringing a residency challenge against the candidacy of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said neither presidential campaign has contacted him this year.
But he has been studying up in preparation for a guest role on the local Fox TV affiliate Tuesday night and has some thoughts on what to expect.
Changes in election law since 2000 mean there will be fewer disputes over how a ballot is counted, Odelson said.
Instead of fighting over whether a voter intended to voter for Obama or Romney, the battles will center on whether that voter was entitled to cast a ballot at all, he explained.
That’s where provisional ballots come in. In essence, in certain situations where the right of individuals to vote is challenged, they are allowed to cast a provisional ballot that can be counted at a later date if election officials verify their eligibility.
Provisional voting is a particular area of concern in states such as Ohio that have added a requirement for voters to bring proper identification with them to the polling place. The ID requirement is still being challenged in court, adding to the uncertainty.
Ohio voters have up to 10 days after the election to produce an ID. Then it would be another 10 days after that before the vote is officially canvassed. An automatic recount would follow if the winning margin was less than one-fourth of 1 percent of the total vote. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, would become as familiar as Florida’s Katherine Harris and just as reviled on the left.
Pretty soon you’re into December with the Electoral College vote fast approaching on Dec. 17.
Best-case scenario: One candidate wins a clear majority of Tuesday’s vote and earns a clear majority of electors.
And the lawyers stay home.