There it was, tucked away inconspicuously in the lower inside corner of page 14 in the first section of the Chicago Tribune for Friday May 11: "Ballot review yields Florida split decision." The story, by Martin Merzer, reported the results of a painstaking review of 176,000 Florida ballots rejected in the machine count on election day last November. In the study, conducted by The Miami Herald and several other Florida papers, USA Today, and Knight Ridder Newspapers, all the ballots were counted according to four different standards, ranging from more to less restrictive. "Bush would prevailed under the two most restrictive," Merzer reported: "His biggest margin would have been 407 votes under the standard most commonly accepted by states that use punch card ballots. It requires that two corners of a ballot's chad must be detached for the vote to count."

On the other hand, "Gore would have won under the two most permissive standards," Merzer wrote: "His biggest margin would have been 332 votes if dimpled chads, which bulge out but are still attached at all four corners, were considered valid votes."

So after all the furor it comes down to this thoroughly unsatisfactory resolution. The stolen election; the massive conspiracy to disenfranchise black voters; Gore's unshakable conviction, two weeks after the election, that he had won Florida by 20,000 votes or more: pure fantasy. How many of the commentators and partisans who waxed apocalyptic after Bush's victory will have the courage and the honesty to acknowledge now that they were simply wrong? (And would Republicans have behaved any better if Gore had won by several hundred votes?)

What to do in the face of such revelations? There has been a good deal of talk about the need for "election reform." In an April 6 editorial in response to a preliminary report on The Miami Herald study, The New York Times spoke gravely of the "stark evidence of how imprecise our voting system is." Certainly it is desirable that voting technology should be efficient and reliable, voter registration rolls meticulously accurate, and so on. But that would hardly eliminate the "imprecision" inherent in democracy.

Better to set the editorials and op-ed pieces aside and turn to the best piece of fiction on voting I have ever read, Italo Calvino's novella "The Watcher," published in Italian in 1963 and in English translation (The Watcher and Other Stories) in 1971.

"The Watcher" is set in the city of Turin in 1953. (An author's note by Calvino says that "the substance" of the story "is based on fact, but the characters are entirely imaginary.") The protagonist, Amerigo Ormea, is representing the Communist party as a poll watcher. Along with representatives from other political parties he is to ensure that voting in this important national election is carried out according to the law.

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For Amerigo that poses a special challenge, for the polling place where he is assigned as an observer is the notorious Cottolengo Hospital for Incurables, a Catholic institution that shelters "unfortunates, the afflicted, the mentally deficient, the deformed, even creatures who are hidden, whom no one can see." Since the postwar democratic reforms, Amerigo relflects, such institutions have "served as great reservoirs of votes of for the Christian Democratic party," which dominates the coalition government:

at Cottolengo, above all, at each election instances were discovered of idiots being led to vote, or dying old women, or men paralyzed with arteriosclerosis, in any case people being unable to make logical distinctions. As a result of these instances, there was a crop of anecdotes, ranging from the burlesque to the pathetic: the voter who ate his ballot, the one who, finding himself in a booth with that piece of paper in his hand, thought he was in a latrine and behaved accordingly, or the line of slightly brighter retarded voters who entered the polls chanting the name of the candidate and his number on the ballot: "One two three: Quadrello! One two three Quadrello!"

Is this so different from what went on in Florida last November? In Chicago? Is it so different from what goes on in every U.S. election?

Unsentimental, blackly comic at times, yet also tender, the novella explores the paradoxes of democracy with a supple intelligence. A subplot concerns Amerigo's troubles with his pregant girlfriend, Lia. This part of the story, in contrast to its main thread, is quite dated now. But it is interesting to consider how Amerigo's desire for Lia to have an abortion is contradicted by his growing recognition of the full humanity of the residents of Cottolengo. The hospital undercuts false pieties about "the people," pieties of communism and democracy alike. And yet the result is not cynicism but rather a heightened sense of what is of value in our very imperfections.

By all means, then, let us make better voting machines, design better ballots. By all means let us treasure the right to vote. Democracy is a gift—but we should not take it, or ourselves, too seriously.

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John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

Visit Books & Culture online at or subscribe here.

Yahoo's full coverage area on the 2000 election links to several news articles and opinion pieces about the newspapers' recounts, but does not include links to Martin Merzer's ChicagoTribune report or The New York Times' editorial.

The Watcher and Other Stories is available from and other book retailers.

Emory University's Frank Pajares and Michigan State University's Todd Comer have impressive Calvino sites, but "The Watcher" is not available anywhere online.

Other Christianity Today coverage of the 2000 election includes:

Partisanship in the Pews | Race, religion played decisive roles in the presidential vote. (Mar. 22, 2001)

Checks and (out of) Balance | Moral truth is in jeopardy when the courts enter the business of making law. (Feb. 27, 2001)

Catholics Remain Largest Bloc in Congress | Baptists, Methodists follow. (Jan. 23, 2001)

Religious Right Loses Power | A few victories, but more losses for conservatives. (Dec. 18, 2000)

The Bush Agenda | Will the White House be user-friendly for religious organizations? (Dec. 15, 2000)

Bush's Call to Prayer | After Al Gore's concession, evangelical leaders unify around faith-based initiatives, morality, and prayer as the incoming Bush administration gears up. (Dec. 14, 2000)

Books & Culture Corner: Election Eve | Why isn't anyone focusing on those who simply won't bother to vote? (Nov. 6, 2000)

Books & Culture Corner: Pencils Down Part II | Think your vote matters? You poor, misguided fool. (Sept. 18, 2000)

Anniversary of Church Shootings Serves as Reminder for Bush | Presidential candidate promises to battle religious bigotry in wake of Texas tragedy. (Sept. 15, 2000)

Books & Culture Corner: Pencils Down, the Election's Over | According to political scientists, Al Gore has already won. (Sept. 11, 2000)

A Presidential Hopeful's Progress | The spiritual journey of George W. Bush starts in hardscrabble west Texas. Will the White House be his next stop? (Sept. 5, 2000)

A Jew for Vice-President? | Joseph Lieberman's Torah observance could renew America's moral debate. (Aug. 9, 2000)

Bush and Gore Size Up Prolife Running Mates | Will abortion stances play an influential role in Vice Presidential selection? (July 17, 2000)

Gary Bauer Can't Go Home Again | Internal survey at Family Research Council says 'partisan' leader unwelcome. (Feb. 8, 2000)

Might for Right? | As presidential primaries get under way, Christian conservatives aim to win. (Feb. 3, 2000)

God Bless America's Candidates | What the religious and mainstream presses are saying about religion on the campaign trail and other issues. (Dec. 10, 1999)

Conservatives Voice Support for Bauer (Nov. 15, 1999)

Bush's Faith-Based Plans | Bush argues that private religious organizations can partner successfully with government. (October 25, 1999)

Can I get a Witness? | Candidate testimonies must move beyond piety to policy. (August 9, 1999)

Republican Candidates Court Conservatives Early, Often (Apr. 4, 1999)

Reconnecting with the Poor | If people are hurting, it's our business. (Jan. 11, 1999)
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Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:

Infamy Indeed | John Gregory Dunne suggests imperialistic Americans got what they deserved at Pearl Harbor. (May 7, 2001)

Rantings of a Not-So-Primly Dressed Person With Too Much Time | The Chronicle of Higher Education infuses some not-so-subtle bigotry into its fetal-tissue research coverage. (Apr. 30, 2001)

Big Numbers, Big Problems | Christianity is in the midst of a massive global shift. But how much of a difference is it making in its new homelands? (Apr. 16, 2001)

DiIulio Keeps Explaining, But Is Anyone Listening? | At a media luncheon in Washington about Bush's faith-based initiatives, answered questions get asked one more time. (Apr. 9, 2001)

Public-izing Faith | Recent articles in Touchstone, Commonweal, and The New York Times serve as reminders that faith is not merely "a private thing." (Apr. 2, 2001)

How Can I Keep From Singing? | Arne Bergstrom has looked suffering square in the eye all over the world. Now he sings about hope. (Mar. 26, 2001)

To Poland, for an Evening | Once in a great while, a film like Kieslowski's The Decalogue discovers how to transport an audience. (Mar. 19, 2001)

Examining Peacocke's Plumage | The winner of the 2001 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion rejects everything resembling Christian orthodoxy, but that doesn't stop him from co-opting the language. (Mar. 12, 2001)

Are Scientists Taking Orders from Pat Robertson? | A essay accuses the Intelligent Design movement of being primarily an arm of "conservative Republicans" and the "religious right." (Mar. 5, 2001)

Had Morse No Code? | Like much popular art, the finale of Inspector Morse functions like a dream of the collective unconscious. (Feb. 26, 2001)

Beware the Women! | A conspiracy theorist claims the church is becoming too "feminized." (Feb. 19, 2001)