Aristotle and the Minnesota Senate Seat

What we do not need -- and should not tolerate -- is a dithering quest for perfection in elections -- like the one still underway in Minnesota.
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Minnesotans are a patient lot, we all know that: never too frantic in traffic jams, unexcited by life's ups and downs, 'steady as she goes' in so many of the dramas that would make a New Yorker squirm or scream. So the reaction in the North Country to the endless deliberations over the Franken-Coleman Senate results has been characteristically Stoic. "Sooner or later," Minnesotans seem to have sighed to themselves (and to the rest of us, watching impatiently from afar), "the good judges of Minnesota will figure this one out: when they do we will give a little cheer for the victor and finally get ourselves two Senators in Washington instead of the one we have had since January."

This is all very well for the good people of Minnesota. May they live long lives in peace and serenity. But the land that surrounds Lake Votebegone is losing something important during these weeks without Senator Al Franken in office in Washington.

Democracy requires elections, messy, imprecise elections. Sometimes they get decided by very small margins. When that happens we need to be sure of the results. For that we have recounts like those in Minnesota, preferably recounts presided over by conscientious and intelligent secretaries of state -- like Minnesota's Mark Ritchie. And when there are lots of challenges during the recount we need good judges to decide them -- again pretty much like the three judge panel appointed in Minnesota (even if one of them does come from Thief River Falls and was appointed by Jesse Ventura!).

What we do not need -- and should not tolerate -- is a dithering quest for perfection in elections -- like the one still underway in Minnesota.

Aristotle said it well in the Nicomachean Ethics, Book III: "We must not expect more precision than the subject-matter admits." "It is the mark of an educated man," he went on, " to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits..."

Elections have an inevitable imprecision wherever they are run and however they are run. Ballots must be marked somehow, whether by pushing a button or a pencil. Hands shake; people misunderstand; paper gets crumpled or lost. Minnesota, as Sam Stein and others have reported all along, has exemplary procedures for resolving the imperfections of its own very good electoral system. Nearly all of its elections, as Garrison Keillor might say, are above average.

But elections are supposed to end, promptly if at all possible. Representatives go to Washington to vote on programs and laws. Sometimes those votes too will be close; occasionally they will even be important. What Minnesota's endless procedures have missed is the vital importance of speed, not too much speed, but some speed, what we might call (with a nod to the Warren Court) deliberate speed. Once the authorities in a given state have conducted a recount and heard the complaints about the election itself they need to make up their minds promptly on two questions: Do we have a winner, even if the margin is tiny? And, was the election fairly run and fairly tallied?

Norm Coleman's call for a new election is a great example of what Aristotle warned us about. Coleman's lawyers want us to say that this election was so messy, and the result so close, that in fact it was altogether indeterminate. That can only be true if we hold up the ideal of a perfectly tidy election with a perfectly inarguable result. That's asking for a precision that elections never give us no matter how many recounts we run. It's time to end the deliberations and certify Minnesota's junior Senator.

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