Chief Justice Rehnquist, wearing his judicial robes, walks to the 50-yard line of the Orange Bowl in Miami carrying an oversized coin. On his right would be Al Gore, flanked by a team of trial lawyers, and on his left, George W. Bush, accompanied by three members of his father's Cabinet. Rehnquist would toss the coin. The TV cameras would track its flight in super slow-mo and zoom in on its face as it landed in the grass. And there, the election would be decided.
This would be the best approach, not because it would be the fairest, but because it would be the most arbitrary--and therefore the most accepted.
It is human nature, or at least American nature, that we often are more likely to accept an outcome if it seems directed by a mysterious force rather than a knowable human. In part this is because we are a religious people. For many, a coin's trajectory would be guided by a force much higher than the Broward County Canvassing Board.
But this bias says as much about our attitude toward other humans as our attitudes toward the Creator. We distrust the motives of people, so we seek beings that have no motives, which pretty much limits the field to inanimate objects.
Think about the Bush campaign's argument against the manual hand recount: It's not that machines are more accurate but that they're more fair. Indeed, their inaccuracy is now well established; thousands of non-controversial hanging chads--clearly demonstrating a vote--were not counted by the machine. Humans have tried fixing those mistakes and in the process may be making mistakes of their own. But even if those manual recounters get it wrong half the time, their recount would still be 50% more accurate than the machine count.
And yet hand counts make us uncomfortable because of the possibility that human mischief could creep in. As James Baker put it, machines are not Democrats or Republicans.
That argument was, in hindsight, true. Eight years later, health care services are being rationed, just as health care reform advocates had predicted--not by the government but by insurance companies. But back in 1994, those opposed to health care reform had the much more persuasive argument--pitting a visible set of government officials and politicians against the somehow more trustworthy "market forces."
The advantage of a coin toss over a votomatic is that it carries no pretense of accuracy. Its capriciousness is its strength.
Whoever won the coin toss would have to enter the White House knowing that his election really was decided by fate or God or chance--and could have easily gone the other way.
This is really how Gore and Bush should be viewing the situation now. Currently, each candidate is sure that he is the real winner. Instead, each should be sure that neither of them is the winner. Both have legitimate claims in Florida: On the one hand, it seems more people went to the polls intending to vote for Gore. On the other hand, more people successfully voted for Bush. But, having come down to a question of a few hundred contested votes out of 100 million cast, this election was, in effect, a tie.
If the results are decided by the courts or Katherine Harris, the winner will strut down Pennsylvania Avenue thinking he actually earned the presidency.
If he won by coin toss, he would walk more humbly. He would feel blessed, not entitled. He would be forced to reach out to the other party because every time he looked at the losing candidate he would have to say to himself, "There but for the grace of God, or luck, go I."