Paul Greenberg

It's over at last, Now we know. Or do we? The voting may have ended, but the counting continues. Here's hoping that by the time these lines appear in print we'll know who'll be the next president of the United States.

Elections are supposed to be provide finality in a democracy, and when they don't, when they just prolong the uncertainty, democracy has been deprived of decision. The country is denied clear leadership, the new president a clear mandate. Nobody wins if nobody wins.

Someone once said that final decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court aren't necessarily right; they're right because they're final. So it is with presidential elections. If they don't provide finality, if they don't mark The End of the campaign but only continue its uncertainties and divisions, they have failed.

See the Bush-Gore match of 2000, which went on for 36 days after the polls closed, leaving a residue of distrust. The bitterness of that contest may have faded over the next four years, but it never completely evaporated, continuing to poison the political atmosphere.

As with other bitterly disputed presidential elections -- like those of 1876 and 1824 -- the result was continued division rather than the unity and consensus an election is supposed to give a republic. In 2000, the indecision went on for 36 days of legal wrangling and bad feelings.

Between election night and the Supreme Court's final ruling after a protracted legal struggle, the country's political system was held in a state of suspended animation. That's not the way presidential elections are supposed to work. Their purpose is to provide legitimacy for the next president, not undermine it by leaving doubt and suspicion in their wake.

After every such hotly disputed election, there are calls to reform the electoral system. Its problems are evident, but the remedy for them remains unclear. The great challenge of all such discussions in not to point out the problems with the country's electoral system, but to propose a better one. And each alternative to it has its own problems.

With all its faults and eccentricities, a better electoral system than this one, which dates back to the 18th century and the founding fathers, has yet to be suggested, or at least win enough support to be adopted. So the country struggles on with its time-tested Electoral College. Even if it fails the test from time to time.

Like democracy itself, the present electoral system may be the worst ever devised -- except for all the others. At least its dangers have been explored and debated time and again, complete with object lessons, while any theoretical substitute might work better only in theory.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.