This new device, all glassy and rounded, would take some time to find ubiquity—the year of his election, Obama (and many of the rest of us) were still using devices such as the RIM BlackBerry and Palm Treo to text and email on the go. The leap we took, from old-school cellphone to iPhone, was akin to swapping out a typewriter for a computer. The appeal of the new device was obvious: You could manifest a screen from your purse or pocket at any moment, pinching to zoom in on faces in photos or bistros on maps, swiping right for love or lust, flicking upward into the abyss of infinite scroll.
This week, John King was still stationed at his Magic Wall, meticulously explaining the startling shifts in support for Donald Trump in Florida’s Miami-Dade and Duval Counties, flicking back and forth between 2016 and 2020 to illustrate the change. And the thing is, it looked quaint. The Magic Wall was just a big, dumb iPad, offering no closure.
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Not that closure is a thing anymore. Here we are with no concrete sense of who the next president of the United States will be. The pandemic had already tied this election in knots months earlier. The previously simple, if sometimes inconvenient, act of filing into the local school or church polling place had suddenly become dangerous, even potentially deadly.
Yet we all knew that chaos would be this election’s attendant. We knew to expect malfeasance from the president himself, including his hamstringing of the U.S. Postal Service and his spreading of dangerous lies about election fraud. But from there things got irredeemably, irreducibly boring: mere consequences of bureaucracy and its burping exhaust, election laws dictating when Wisconsin could start counting early ballots versus Florida. It’s as if the election has become an endless but depthless hall of mirrors.
Even in the past several hours, as clarity appeared to arrive, it didn’t take the neat and tidy form of county results comparable to prior races. The visual grammar of election-return maps broke down entirely, details like the percentage of precincts reporting having become meaningless now that massive mounds of absentee votes were being counted separately from automated polling-machine ballots. Twelve years after King’s first Magic Wall performance, state and even county results are pinch-zoomable from the couch or toilet.
But now they ask more questions than they answer. If you are extremely online, you may find that election outcomes, already slippery because of razor-thin margins, have become more like calculus problems. If about 28,000 ballots were outstanding in Pima County, Arizona, at 8 o’clock Thursday night, and 13,000 of them went to Biden, and 14,000 of them went to Trump, then that means a net gain of 1,000 for Trump … but how much of an advantage does that give the president? Better keep scrolling, in vain, for answers.