Five weeks on, and the United States election inches closer to the finish line. One House of Representatives seat has still not been called — the 4th district in Louisiana, where voting was delayed due to Hurricane Gustav — but assuming Republican John Fleming holds on to his current lead (he’s 356 votes ahead, with provisionals still outstanding), the Democrats will have 257 seats to the GOP’s 178, a net Democrat gain of 21.

That leaves the Senate, where the second-last contest was decided last week, as a runoff election in Georgia was won comfortably by Republican Saxby Chambliss, who had led in November but failed to reach the required 50%. The Georgia result put paid to the Democrats’ hopes of winning a filibuster-proof 60 seats; they now have 58, against 41 Republicans and one undecided.

The undecided Senate seat is Minnesota, and it’s a real cliffhanger.

The first time it was counted, incumbent Republican Norm Coleman led his Democrat challenger, ex-comedian Al Franken, by just 215 votes out of some 2.9 million. That automatically triggered a recount, which was completed on Friday — sort of.

The recount shows Coleman now 192 votes ahead, but that figure is largely meaningless because it excludes all ballots that have been challenged, however frivolously, by either side. A better indication would be to include all the challenged ballots (i.e. assume that the challenges will be rejected, as most will be), but unfortunately the state does not report that figure. The Franken campaign, however, claims that on that basis they’re ahead by four — yes, four — votes.

Minnesota’s state canvassing board begins meeting next week to adjudicate on the several thousand challenged ballots. By that time, it’s hoped that the 133 ballots that went missing in Minneapolis will have been found; if not, the board will have to decide whether or not to use the initial result from that precinct, which had Franken ahead by 46.

There are also some hundreds of disputed absentee (i.e. postal) votes to consider, which if counted are expected to favor Franken. One can sympathise with Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com, who said, “If you put a gun to my head and asked me to predict the winner, I would tell you to shoot me.”

What’s the moral of all this? That some elections just are, unavoidably, very close, and that unless we want to resort to some purely random process to decide who represents us (not a crazy idea), there is no reasonable alternative to methodically counting all the votes and doing the best we can to determine the intent of the majority of voters.

Despite the hiccups, Minnesota is showing how it should be done: slowly, carefully and transparently.

It’s worth remembering that the eight years of Bush presidency only happened because Republican rioters and a partisan Supreme Court prevented just that sort of recount from taking place in an equivalently close election in Florida in 2000. If elections are worth doing at all, they’re worth doing right.

Peter Fray

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