BOSTON—There’s no reason to start crying that American democracy has been sullied, or that the system doesn’t work, or that a constitutional crisis is looming. The Constitution does not enshrine the right to know the winner of a presidential election before bedtime. The one certainty at the end of this long Election Night: There’s something really, really wrong with exit polling. The near-certainty: John Kerry is going to lose this election relatively quickly.
How long can Kerry contest an election in which a wartime incumbent beat him by 3.7 million votes? This isn’t the same as losing the Electoral College by 537 votes when you won the overall popular vote by more than 500,000. Granted, Kerry isn’t contesting anything yet. He’s just waiting until the vote totals show that he’s been mathematically eliminated, and he shouldn’t be begrudged that right.
The real takeaway from this election is that the Electoral College needs to be abolished immediately. If the American public doesn’t want to shutter the Electoral College after tonight, we never will. The 2000 election didn’t persuade me that the system needed to be junked, but this election provides a far better example of the system’s flaws. Under a popular-vote system, President Bush would probably have been declared the winner by the time the polls closed on the West Coast. Only the fact that states, rather than people, elect the American president allowed Kerry to get within striking distance in an election he lost by 3 percentage points. You could argue that the 2000 election was a tie, that it was so close that the winner couldn’t be discerned. That’s not the case this time around. A majority of Americans clearly went to the polls and voted for the re-election of President Bush. John Kerry lost this election. The Electoral College is just going to make him suffer a slow and painful death instead of a swift and decisive one.
By 2:30 a.m. on Tuesday night—or Wednesday morning—when reporters shuttled outside to watch John Edwards deliver one of the most disappointing political speeches in American history, everyone, including what was left of Kerry’s hometown crowd, knew the Democratic ticket had been defeated. When Edwards walked out to explain why he and Kerry were not ready to concede, his statement had all the eloquence of a statement made on an airport tarmac. He spoke for less than a minute. Here’s what he said, in its entirety: “It’s been a long night, but we’ve waited four years for this victory. We can wait one more night. Tonight, John and I are so proud of all of you who are here with us, and all of you across the country who have stood with us in this campaign. John Kerry and I made a promise to the American people, that in this election, every vote would count, and every vote would be counted. Tonight, we are keeping our word, and we will fight for every vote. You deserve no less. Thank you!” The speech’s redeeming element was Edwards’ suggestion that this will all be over by Wednesday night.
But even if the election continues into next week (an unlikely scenario), it’s worth remembering that so far, no one’s suing, no one’s litigating, and no one’s contesting anything. We’re just waiting for the outcome of a close election to be determined. Kerry and Edwards are losing, but that’s no reason for them to walk off the field before the clock runs out.