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Commentary

You're an important part of a total secret that will be revealed within hours

Jack Lessenberry

Probably the best and most poetic description of what happens on Election Day was written more than half a century ago by the journalist and historian Theodore White.

“It was invisible, as always,” he began his Pulitzer-Prize winning book, "The Making of the President 1960."

“By the time the candidate had left his hotel, several million had already voted across the county – in schools, libraries, churches, stores, post offices. All of this is invisible, for it is the essence of the act that … it is a mystery in which millions of people each fit one fragment of a total secret together, none of them knowing the shape of the whole.”

That’s what’s happening today in Michigan, and around the nation. We think this may be the closest governor’s race since 1990, but we don’t really know.

We think the U.S. Senate race will be a decisive victory, but we don’t know that, either. We do know that there are candidates today who fully expect victory, but who will taste the bitter ashes of defeat, and there are others who will be surprise winners.

But we won’t know who for hours yet. Voting is, in a way, the secular equivalent of the confessional in the Roman Catholic Church. You can say whatever you like to your friends, but in the final analysis nobody but you will ever really know how you voted.

Impatient reporters have tried to get their noses under the tent, to find out early what is happening, through polls and exit polls, which are often right and sometimes very wrong.

Ask Presidents Gore or Dewey. In Michigan, every poll showed Jim Blanchard easily beating John Engler in 1990, but he lost. Voting is a secret.

Tonight, or tomorrow, we will congratulate the winners. But we don’t often think about the remarkable men and women who count the votes and then quickly bring us the results. Michigan has long had one of the nation’s fastest and cleanest vote-counting apparatus.

Vote counting statewide is supervised by the secretary of state, who is this year herself a candidate for re-election. But it is a measure of the purity of our system that nobody in either party worries about that.

On the local level, vote-counting is a countywide responsibility supervised by the county clerks. The second-largest and perhaps most important county in this election is Oakland, whose clerk, Lisa Brown, is the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. Nobody worries about that either.

Tonight, when the voting places close, the results will be flashed to the media and the world by the most important disseminator of news, the great cooperative the Associated Press, usually known as the AP.

Hank Ackerman runs their Michigan election operation. He told me yesterday he relies on more than a hundred unseen heroes, stringers in news jargon, who collect the returns and call them in as fast as possible.

Some of them are my students. Another has been doing this for half a century. They are invisible but essential to us getting the results as fast as possible.

As for you, all have to do is vote.

Corny as it sounds, people did indeed die to give you that right. So you really should.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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