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8 Upper

Indecision Time

By Tom Scocca | Posted 11/15/2000

In the late hours of election night, as I stared at the television with near- catatonic fixation, Mrs. 8 Upper, whose head is far cooler and wiser than mine, gently suggested I pretend I was watching a sporting event. I whipped my head around and shot her a panicky look. Probably remembering my bloodcurdling screams during the 1996 American League Championship Series, she immediately retracted the suggestion.

But the idea had been planted. And the more I hung on the election results over the rest of the week, the more I felt as if I were watching a sporting event. Or one specific, postmodern part of a sporting event: It felt as if the nation had hunkered down to wait out an instant-replay appeal.

The wrangling over the Florida vote presents a truth familiar to anyone who's ever watched a reverse-angle slow-motion breakdown of a sideline catch: Though we pride and comfort ourselves that we are a nation of laws, what we are underneath is a nation of legalisms. Our rules and our laws, so sturdy and impartial, rest on a splintery layer of assertions and interpretations, which we have agreed to pretend is bedrock.

If you watch enough football, you know how tenuous such agreement can be. In the Ravens-Titans game Oct. 22, with time running down, Qadry Ismail caught a pass at the back of the end zone, his momentum carrying him over the end line, where he landed prone. The on-field officials signaled the catch was out of bounds; the call went up for review. On the giant screens in PSINet Stadium, they showed the play over and over: Ismail planting one shoe firmly in bounds, then the tip of the other shoe. At that point, the stadium folks stopped the replay, freezing it to show the toe-tip, a dark sliver of end zone, and then the white end line.

What happened on the rest of the replay, though, was the crux: Ismail's foot, en pointe, kept dragging and rolling forward as he fell. He landed with his sole skyward, his toe in the end zone, and his ankle out of bounds. Somewhere between his toe and his ankle, he was touching the line. The rules of the National Football League do not define the anatomical boundaries of the upside-down human foot; the call on the field was upheld. No touchdown.

This sort of thing is not unusual. The NFL relies on a whole vocabulary of solid-sounding terms to describe guesswork: grasp and control, forward progress, the plane of the goal line, incidental contact. The whole ritual of measuring for first down is an epistemological joke. The ref digs the ball out of a writhing scrum of players and plops it down on bumpy ground. A crew trots in from the sidelines, holding a chain rig (both ends of which are free to move), and stretches it taut, planting both ends on that same torn-up playing surface. And then the ref kneels down, solemnly studying the relative position of the tip of the ball and the end of the chain, unto fractions of a millimeter.

Football is hardly the only sport in which certainty is an illusion. In game four of the World Series, the Mets' Mike Piazza launched a monster fly ball high over the left-field foul pole in Shea Stadium. Either before or after it passed the pole, it curved toward foul territory. The umpire called it a foul. In the next day's Washington Post, Thomas Boswell wrote that it looked fair. I e-mailed my friend Jason, who was at the game, asking how it looked to him. "It looked like an amoeba falling into the ocean," he replied.

Welcome to the Sunshine State. Some 6 million people voted in Florida. As of press time, George W. Bush reportedly has some 300 more votes than Al Gore does. Three hundred votes out of 6 million is 0.005 percent. If you're measuring for a first down, that's less than two-hundredths of an inch. It is, quite literally, im measurably small, as the fluctuations of the first recount demonstrated.

Living in the Beacon of Democracy, we've tried not to think about this. But here it is. If you count and recount 6 million votes, using punch-card ballots, the individual voters' voices--the sacred basic currency of our political system--flicker into and out of being like mere statistical data. Even before you get into double-punched ballots and voter lawsuits, the precise result is unknowable.

Both sides propose principles for sorting the mess out. Democrats say fairness demands an exhaustive recount, with a re-canvassing of the disputed vote in Palm Beach County. The Bush forces, as long as their tiny lead survives, say the initial result should be irrevocable. But neither claim trumps the other. NFL calls can be overturned on video replay; baseball calls cannot. If a college basketball player hoists a game-winning shot at the buzzer, officials can check the tape to see if he released it in time. If an NBA player hoists the same shot, the referee's first judgment is final.

But there is no rule book that tells us how to settle the Florida dispute, and no ref to step in and make a call. There are simply those 25 unassigned, decisive electors, and the two parties--nearly 100 million voters and several hundred million dollars behind them--both clutching at victory, unable to shake the foe. The only clean solution is for someone to give in: Either concede Florida outright and quit recounting votes, or agree to split the electors (which amounts to concession). Which side would let go, I can't imagine.

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