I used to say, “The only thing certain in our elections are that they will end on time.” Well, the election of 2000 tops them all. Not only is it still “too close to call,” this election is unlikely to end on time. Let me explain why. It all centers on Washington state and a new election law it initiates this election.

The map of the Electoral College has two states left as tossups: Maine and Washington. If Vice President Al Gore wins either one, he hits the 270 votes needed to win the election, according to the hotline. If Texas Gov. George W. Bush wins them both, he ties Gore at 269.

Charlie Cook, the congressional electoral guru, says that although the Republicans are still in the lead to retain control of the Senate, recent events have reopened the window of opportunity for the Democrats. The Republicans need to retain Sen. Slade Gorton’s seat in Washington, and he has been slipping.

The National Journal suggests that the House of Representatives looks as if it will stay Republican by one member, and three of the tightly contested districts the GOP must win are in Washington.

From this, it is clear that Washington is a key state in all the important national contests. And the election in Washington is not going to end on time.

There is a new (and welcome) opportunity for Washingtonians to vote by mail. Local officials estimate that as many as one-fourth of voters could take advantage of this new voting method. Washington election officials will count any vote that is postmarked before the polls close Tuesday night. Washington state votes are unlikely to make their way through the mail before Friday or Saturday to allow their results to be tabulated as part of the national numbers. So the race for the White House and for control of the Congress could be undecided several days after Tuesday’s vote.

Whatever the result, this battle has been one of the most interesting and closely contested elections in history.

I mentioned that the Hotline has reduced its “tossup states” to two, Maine and Washington, with Bush holding 254 electoral votes and Gore 269. That analysis is a little too aggressive for me. It gives the electoral votes to the leader in each state each day and there are at least a dozen states that are bouncing back and forth and should not be counted for either candidate. Another seven states that are leaning toward Gore or Bush are not a sure bet for either candidate.

Historically, in presidential campaigns, only a few states are undecided this close to the election. But not in this millennium — the opposite has happened. The battleground states have multiplied and the candidates plan to spend their final days scurrying through a long list of undecided states from Washington to Florida to Maine.

As you might imagine, this year’s race is spawning debate among political scientists over all the ways the Electoral College math might break down. With 538 votes at stake, the two candidates could actually tie. What happens in case of an Electoral College tie is so bizarre and fraught with constitutional danger that it is not pleasant to consider.

The winner of the popular vote could actually lose the election in the Electoral College, an unpleasant scenario that hasn’t happened in 112 years. The thought of a president being elected who has fewer votes than his opponent is scary. The last time was 1888, when Democratic President Grover Cleveland got 48.6 percent of the popular vote to Republican Benjamin Harrison’s 47.8 percent. Harrison was elected president because he had more electoral votes.

This phenomenon is created by the substantial margins Bush enjoys in the states that he is winning. He has huge leads in Texas and most of the southern states. His popularity continues to grow where he is winning, and Gore is offering no opposition in those states — they are hopelessly lost. In those states where Gore is winning, the margins are much smaller, so his overall popular vote is disproportionate to the electoral vote.

Now the attention all turns to the field operations that will be working at a frenetic pace until the final minute of voting Tuesday. The focus on get-out-the-vote programs this year is at record levels. Why? It is simple: When fewer than half the eligible voters go to the polls, it is very important which half votes.

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