The election that won't end

If it feels endless now, wait until Nov. 6. The winner will be considered illegitimate by half the country

Published October 23, 2012 8:44PM (EDT)

Are you enjoying this election? If so, I have some good news: We as a nation will definitely continue arguing about it long after it finishes in two weeks. (If it manages to finish in one night!)

Here's the landscape two weeks out: Every conservative either believes or has decided to claim to believe that Romney is winning. He's running away with this thing, all the momentum's on his side, he's obviously closing the deal, etc. The Drudge splash all day has been an Obama picture headlined "NEEDS A MIRACLE" (then you click through to an AP story that does not have anything in it about Obama "needing a miracle"). The liberals, though, have decided that Romney is bluffing, faking confidence, and that he's aided in this by a press that is wedded to a "Romney's unstoppable momentum" narrative. (See: Mike Tomasky, Alec MacGillis, Jonathan Chait.) Statistically, the polls are split nationally and Obama retains a small but significant lead in enough states to win reelection. Nate Silver says the president has a 70 percent chance of winning, well down from his peak, but still better odds than Silver's model gave him in parts of July and August.

No matter the results of the election, I can guarantee one thing: The winner will be widely considered to be completely illegitimate by the losing side.

The Republicans have now convinced themselves of Romney's inevitable victory based solely on their own gut feelings and the results of two national tracking polls, one of which is currently a major outlier and the other of which has a documented conservative bias. If Barack Obama wins reelection, it will almost certainly be by a slim margin, and I imagine conservatives have already convinced themselves that that margin will consist entirely of fraudulent votes. Obama's victory in Ohio would obviously be because of the removal of the billboards in Cleveland and Columbus warning (certain) people not to commit voter fraud. At least one 2009 poll found that a majority of Republicans were at least willing to claim that they believed the 2008 election has been stolen by ACORN, and the 2008 election was not actually particularly close.

It doesn't matter that voter fraud essentially does not exist, and cannot actually exist in any form large enough to change the result of a presidential election: High black and Latino turnout will be considered de facto proof of fraud, and the New Black Panther Party will be repeatedly welcomed back to Fox News to reenact their polling place intimidation masquerade. A belief in pervasive "voter fraud" is already a pretty mainstream right-wing view. If Obama wins by a slim margin, it'll be Republican Party dogma.

On the other hand, liberals see, basically, a race in which Obama has never really trailed, and in which he has a decided Electoral College advantage. If Romney wins, the massive and growing crusade against "voter fraud" will certainly receive some of the blame. Republicans have passed laws making it more difficult to vote in a dozen states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. These laws (specifically and intentionally) target poor and minority voters, who may not have readily available government-issued photo identification, or who may have trouble getting to the polls without the benefit of early voting. Courts have delayed or softened many of these laws, but the campaign surrounding them has probably already led to confusion among certain Democratic constituencies about what sort of paperwork is required and what draconian punishments may be in store for someone caught voting incorrectly. (Then there is the old-fashioned pre-election voter purge, a favorite in Ohio and Florida every four years, this one included.)

Meanwhile, we're having another of our regular cycle of stories about how horrible electronic voting is. The machines are easily hacked, many still provide no paper trail, and all the companies that make them always seem to be invested in and owned by Republicans for some reason.

If, in other words, Romney manages to make his difficult electoral math work out, and he wins in Ohio, I guarantee we'll be hearing horror stories about suppression and "lost" votes for the next year. (Lest anyone accuse me of false equivalence here, I should point out that conservatives are worried about a made-up thing and liberals are worried about a whole series of things that actually happen fairly regularly, at least on the voter suppression side.)

So no matter who wins, the endless partisan arguments are going to continue. And hell, the campaign might continue for a while, too: There is also a chance that the winner of the popular vote loses the Electoral College this year, again, and if Obama ends up the Electoral College winner I bet Romney and the GOP don't concede quite as politely as the Democrats did in 2000. If Romney wins the Electoral College but loses the popular vote, he will be our next president. In the unlikely event of an Electoral College tie, Romney will again probably be our next president. But we might get to keep Biden.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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2012 Elections Barack Obama Mitt Romney Voter Fraud Voter Suppression Voting Machines