I said that this was going to be a historically close election, that it was quite possible that one presidential candidate would carry the popular vote while the other won the presidency by capturing the Electoral College vote, and that the counting would not be conclusive on election night.

Unfortunately, all of my fearful forecasts proved correct. With Vice President Al Gore holding onto a 271,867 vote lead out of more than 100 million votes cast, and clinging to a 260-to-246 lead in electoral votes over Texas Gov. George W. Bush, we all await the recount of the votes from the state of Florida to determine who the next president of the United States will be. Oregon’s electoral votes are also yet to be determined, but its seven electoral votes will not make a difference in the outcome. Florida’s 25 electoral votes will decide the race.

What happens next? Not much, I am afraid, until we have the final tally of the votes in Florida, and in the best of circumstances we may not have that tally — and thus the nation’s tally — for another week. Here is what a recount in Florida involves:

Florida law mandates a recount when the margin of difference in a race is less than one half of 1 percent. The Florida Election Canvassing Commission will supervise the recount. It is responsible for certifying the results of any election for federal or statewide office. The commission is made up of Gov. Jeb Bush (the GOP presidential nominee’s brother), Secretary of State Katherine Harris and the director of the Division of Elections, Clay Roberts. County canvassing boards that conducted yesterday’s original count will also conduct the recount. The boards are made up of a county judge, the chair of the board of county commissioners and the county supervisor of elections.

The first step in the recount will be for the county canvassing boards to test all tabulating equipment. Next, they will check the Election Day counts sent by precinct election boards to the county authorities against the mechanical or electronic counters on individual voting machines. The county boards can then conduct a manual recount.

If any precinct recount “indicates an error in the vote tabulation which could affect the outcome of the election,” state law allows the county board several options. It can correct the error and recount the rest of the county again with regular tabulation computers. It can ask state electoral authorities to verify the tabulation system’s accuracy. Or it can conduct another manual recount. That count must be open to the public and conducted by teams of two electors, one from each major party.

Election Director Roberts indicated that the recount could take several days. “While the people of the state of Florida deserve a quick resolution to this issue, they more certainly deserve a methodical, a diligent and an accurate resolution,” he said.

Besides the recount, there are two potentially crucial situations that have attracted lawyers from both parties.

Democrats claim that more than 3,000 Gore votes in Palm Beach County may have been mistakenly recorded as votes for third-party candidate Patrick Buchanan because of oversize ballots whose lines were skewed.

An unknown number of absentee ballots have yet to be tallied. Some state officials said a recount could be completed by late Thursday, but absentee ballots mailed from overseas have 10 days to arrive. They must have been postmarked by last Tuesday to be valid. Some of the absentees will come from military personnel serving abroad and will likely be marked for Bush. However, about 1,000 Florida voters live in Israel and many of those might have Gore’s name marked.

A full count of Florida’s vote may not be complete for another week. Absentee ballots dispatched domestically must arrive by 7 p.m. on Election Day. But voters overseas get a 10-day extension, so long as their envelopes are postmarked by Election Day. In 1996, about 2,300 Florida ballots arrived from overseas within the 10-day window. But state officials have no way of knowing how many to expect this year.

Whatever the ultimate result of Florida’s recount, some people will be skeptical. Not only are the governors of Florida and Texas brothers, but another key player, Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, chairs the Gore campaign in Florida.

No matter which way the recount goes, I believe that it will seal the election for this year. There will be no protracted litigation or legislative gimmicks to change the result. The constitution is clear. It will be respected, and I would expect the loser to accept his fate graciously and expeditiously.

But it was not just the election of the president that was close. The congressional races were equally tight, and several are still in question.

With the Republicans holding a 54-46 margin in the Senate, 34 seats were contested this year: 19 Republican and 15 Democratic seats. The Republicans won 15 races, the Democrats 18, with one (Washington State) still not determined.

Should Democrat Maria Cantwell defeat incumbent Republican Slade Gorton, the Senate will have 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans when the 107th Congress reconvenes Jan. 3, 2001. An equal split in the Senate has only happened once in the past, in the Congress of 1881-82. And, I am told, absolutely nothing got done during those years.

Let’s look at this situation. The vice president is the president of the Senate. He presides over Senate sessions and he breaks tie votes. On Jan. 3, 2001, Al Gore will be in the chair. He can break any tie vote and cause the Senate to be organized by the Democrats. Then, on Jan. 20, one of two things happens. Gore becomes president and Joe Lieberman becomes vice president. But to take that post, Lieberman must resign his Senate seat and allow the Republican governor of Connecticut to appoint his successor. Then the Republicans will have a 51-49 majority and will regain control. The second scenario is that Bush becomes president, Dick Cheney becomes vice president — and the Republicans have the tie-breaking vote.Either way, the Republicans have control.

Yet the addition of the new senators is critical for the Democrats; it provides them with additional leverage to filibuster measures they do not like. To end a filibuster requires 60 votes and it will be more difficult for the Republicans to attract the nine or 10 members they would need.

With Republicans holding a 222-209-2 margin in the House of Representatives and all the seats being contested, the Republicans have won 220 seats, the Democrats 211 and Independents two; two seats are still undetermined. Yesterday’s election climaxed one of the most expensive and fiercely fought House campaigns in years. Republicans worked to stretch out the longest period of GOP control of the House since 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt led a Democratic sweep that ended 16 years of unbroken GOP rule.

The campaign was fought over a narrow set of popular issues, such as creating a prescription-drugs benefit for Medicare recipients, boosting education funding and protecting Social Security. But the results offered no clear mandate and probably pointed to another two years of partisan struggle in the House.

During the past month, incumbent members of both parties complained loudly about the difficulty of remaining in session during the middle of an election campaign. They all wanted to be home campaigning. Maybe they should reconsider their strategies for the next election. Of the 390 incumbents who stood for election, all but eight of them were returned. Absence seems to have made hearts grow fonder.

No matter which candidate wins Florida and the presidency, he will assume office in January without a popular mandate. He will face a divided and bitterly partisan Congress. Governance will require artful maneuvering and consensus development.

Remember that Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 with less than 43 percent of the popular vote. He assumed a mandate and made it stick. He learned to govern effectively in spite of a hostile Congress. Unity isn’t everything.

But because of the closeness of the race, look for conciliation to start with the first speech the winner gives upon the announcement of his victory. A bipartisan Cabinet is very much the talk of Washington, but bipartisan teams sound better in discussions in November than they will in January.

The seeming misfire of the Electoral College system will not degrade the acceptability of the new president. He will be the president, and the people will accept his victory. They may not like the bifurcated result, but they understand the constitutional authority that divines the winner. Both sides knew the rules before they started and they used strategies based on the Electoral College. They accepted it and so will the people.

The exposed frailties of the Electoral College system caught the pundits’ imagination last night. “Time for a change!” they said. That is easier said than done. Proposals to eliminate the Electoral College have been discussed for years, and in the 1960s a proposed constitutional amendment passed both houses of Congress. Unfortunately, the margin in the Senate was not sufficient (it received 51 votes, not the 66 required) to send the amendment to the states for ratification. Theorists will come out of the woodwork to explain how small states benefit from the weighting they receive in the Electoral College. Others will suggest that minorities in big states benefit from disproportionate strength in the Electoral College. There seems to be something for everybody . . . except the people. There will be a good bit of talk, but we are probably stuck with the Electoral College system for a long time to come.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.