My interest in the outcome of the American election derives largely from the fact that I am not American. Whatever your opinion of American foreign policy, it is undeniable that the holder of the country's highest office wields significant power. I do not have a say in the selection of the said office-holder, which intensifies my interest in the decisions made by those who do.
So it was that I sat for a day, glued to CNN. I was watching when CNN declared that Al Gore had won the 25 electoral college votes held by Florida. I watched as the votes continued to pile up in Gore's column and the anchors spoke with increasing confidence of Gore's victory and "what Bush must do".
Then, the tide started to turn. A few states headed Bush's way, and the anchors started to compare close elections and try to figure out whether this one was not as close as 1976 or whether you'd have to go back to 1960 to find one closer. Favourite quote of the day: "At the start of the day we said one candidate could win the electoral college and the other could win the popular vote. Now it looks like that situation might reverse."
The surreal moment came when one of the anchors (don't remember his name - a guy with glasses) said "some newspaper tomorrow is going to come out with a Dewey Wins' headline", referring to the 1948 presidential race, in which Harry S. Truman barely won, but the result was decided after print deadlines.
The irony of all this was that CNN, in declaring Florida for Gore, had already had its "Dewey Wins" moment - it just didn't realise it yet.
Still, just in case we missed it, it had another one later on in the evening, when it decided that Bush had won Florida. I witnessed for myself the stirring, patriotic moment as CNN flashed up "Bush Wins", complete with smiling snapshot of the governor and a slowly waving American flag - brought a tear to my eye. Really.
You can imagine how I felt the next day, seeing the same CNN fellow on the TV, with the vote still unclear, holding up newspapers with "Bush Wins" headlines and criticising them as "19th century technology trying to survive in a 21st century world". Hello? Both the early 20th century technology of TV and the late 20th century technology of the Internet had also called it for Bush. And for Gore. Someone out there probably called it for Hagelin, but I didn't happen to see it.
Then there were the recounts. The first recount, running the ballots through the machines again, came up with a result some 1300 votes different to the initial count. Gore's people asked for a hand recount, and the Bush campaign came up with probably the best line of the whole affair when it said that a hand recount "would be much more prone to human error". Yes, it would. By definition. But computer error amounted to 1300 votes, so I was happy to see human error given a go.
The Bush remarks about human error, of course, cast doubt on every US election prior to the introduction of the machines. I wish I could tell you when that was, but I'm willing to bet Abe Lincoln achieved office on the strength of hand-counted votes. They also cast doubt on the electoral college, which as we all now know is a bunch of people who get together and vote - and those votes are counted by other people. The "potential for mischief", to quote Bush's people again, is clearly enormous. Can't trust people as far as you can kick 'em.
The solution, of course, is to make it all computerised. There should be no ballot papers, in "butterfly" configuration or otherwise. You go into a booth, where you find an image of a ballot paper on a touch screen. You simply touch the name of the candidate you wish to elect, and the computer registers your vote and counts it at the same time. To avoid Palm Beach style confusion, it could have a standard dialogue box saying, just by way of example, "You are about to vote for Patrick J. Buchanan, a rabid, right wing ideologue. ARE YOU SURE? Y/N". This dialogue, as all computer users know, is a guaranteed safeguard against error.
It's possible that you know the outcome. I don't, existing as I do a full week in your past (see earlier comments about 19th century print technology). What I do know is that I'll never complain about how long it takes to work out the winner of an Australian election again.
Matthew JC. Powell rewrote the headline on this column three times. Tease or praise him on firstname.lastname@example.org