What is it we are learning in the aftermath of this crazy election? How powerful a single vote can be?

Or how worthless a single vote can be, when 19,000 of them can be tossed out in one county? When boxes of ballots get lost? When recounts are demanded or stopped depending on their expected outcome?

Such a plunge, from the sublimity of voting day to the ridiculousness that followed!

No matter how far down the candidates have dragged the campaign, voting day still seems sublime to me. I feel I am participating in a sacred ritual. At the polling place my neighbors are transformed into dignified officials, overseeing a solemn process. The people file by, in work boots or office shoes, each one equal. There’s a sense of awe — 100 million people are having their say. One or another of those tinny candidates is about to be invested with our joint power.

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But the day after? Given 100 million pieces of data, mistakes will be made. Given what’s at stake, votes cast in faith will be tampered with. We’ve always known about election “irregularities” in Chicago and East Texas. Now West Palm Beach? Butterfly ballots and dimpled chads?

Much is ridiculous here, but not the long wait for results. Some people are saying that the uncertainty is undermining our democracy, holding the nation in unbearable doubt, distressing the people. But everyone around me is leading a normal life, with the added spice of a drama to talk about. The only folks who seem eaten with anxiety are those hoping to get to ride in Air Force One.

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It would be better for the nation if the unsettledness goes on for awhile. Times of irresolution may be uncomfortable, but they are also exciting and important. They foster creativity. We begin to think, first jokingly, then seriously, outside the box. As when some people say, we didn’t much like either of those guys; let’s just keep Bill Clinton till they come up with something better.

Or others say, let’s have a co-presidency. One could go to ceremonies; the other could be the policy wonk. Or each could get two years, or one month on, one month off. Given inevitable counting errors, some kind of power sharing should probably follow any race where the margin between candidates is closer than, say, one percent.

Others want to get rid of the rusty, creaking electoral college. Not only is it an outrage for the person who lost the popular vote to win the election, the principle of “winner-take-all” is an outrage to minority voters. When I lived in a state where I was always in the minority, I found it easy to think, “Heck, why bother?” The only thing that kept me going to the polls was my respect for the process. That was before this election had given all of us much too close a look at the inner workings of the process.

How about — to reward efficient fiscal management — awarding the presidency to the candidate who paid the least for each vote? By that criterion Nader ($2.50 per vote) would win, with Gore second ($2.70), Bush third ($3.70) and Buchanan a distant last ($64.00 per vote).

Better yet, let’s end the corrupting role of money in our campaigns.

There is no reason why 100 million people need to put up with a system that mocks their trust, twists their intentions, or ignores their input. This is our game; we can write the rules. This election has shown clearly that the present rules do not respect the votes of all the people. So let its messy conclusion keep us in uncertainty long enough to make changes.

Nebraska and Maine already split their electoral votes by congressional district, so “winner takes all” at least recognizes different votes in different parts of the state. That rule would have ended the controversy in Florida. Why doesn’t every state adopt it? Or why don’t we dump the electoral college and go to a popular vote?

Why not the instant runoff? When there are more than two candidates, each voter could rank them in order of preference. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent (as was the case in this election), all first-choice votes for the lowest vote-getter are re-assigned to the second choice, and so on, until someone gets a majority. That change would have enfranchised the Nader voter who didn’t want to hand the election to Bush, or the Buchanan voter who didn’t want to hand it to Gore. It would also challenge the widespread assumption that Americans prefer the middle of the political spectrum.

Campaign reform is an obvious necessity. It could limit the campaign season to a few weeks, as is the case in Europe. It could make a level playing field by assuring equal resources to all serious candidates. It could deflect those resources from misleading ads to informative policy statements and real debates. It could provide campaign money from the people, so our elected officials would understand to whom they are beholden.

Sound impossible? A little crackpot? You know, every idea sounds impossible when it’s first articulated — even democracy, even a balance of powers, even the electoral college. What seems really impossible, at this moment when the trust and faith of our voters have been so insulted by the unfairness of our present electoral system, is that we will put up with it any longer.