Minn. recount sequel won't live up to 2008 classic

5:50 AM, Nov 5, 2010   |    comments
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Tom Emmer and Mark Dayton

SAINT PAUL, Minn. -- The recount in the 2010 Minnesota governor's election will differ substantially from the protracted 2008 drama that settled the senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken.

For starters the apparent margin between Mark Dayton and Tom Emmer is much wider.  Dayton's lead is 8,781 votes in the unofficial machine results. Those results won't be certified until after the county canvassing process, which ends Nov. 19th.

But, based on recent history, that total may change by hundreds of votes during the county canvassing process and a hand recount. A swing of thousands of votes, on the other hand, is unlikely.

Jay Weiner, the MinnPost writer who recapped the Coleman-Franken recount in his new book This is Not Florida told KARE recounts that change election outcomes are extremely rare. And, when it does happen, it's typically in races that are much tighter.

"In 2008 it went from Coleman being ahead by 215 to Franken being ahead by 49, so 264 votes in 87 counties, so it really ends up being about two and a half per county," Weiner said Thursday.

"Tom Emmer is looking at 100 per county, that's got to actually flip to his side, so the numbers aren't there."

Another key difference is that the sorting and counting process will be expedited this time around, thanks to new laws passed in response to the 2008 recount. Campaigns will find their powers to challenge paper ballots, or try to disqualify them, will be sharply limited.

"It should go a lot faster because now we can rule out the frivolous challenges," Ramsey County's election director Joe Mansky told KARE, "The campaigns will not be able to challenge the ballots simply because of stray marks that are on the ballots."

Ballots can still be challenged if the voter's intent is unclear, or if a name is written outside the write-in candidate slots. A ballot is nullified in Minnesota if the voter leaves an identifying mark, dating back to the days when people were paid to vote and left a mark for proof.

But ballots can no longer be challenged based on a name written inside the write-in space.

"Someone's name on a write-in line is not a way of identifying the ballot," Mansky explained, "It's simply a way of somebody trying to vote for a particular candidate."

Fewer absentees in play

The Minnesota Secretary of State's office estimated roughly 3,000 absentee ballots were rejected, as opposed to 12,000 rejected absentee's in 2008.  That's due in large part to a new centralized absentee ballot screening process, which gave voters a better shot at correcting errors on their applications.

Absentees were examined at a central location, and were scanned beginning on the Friday before the election. In the past those ballot envelopes would be delivered to the precincts to be judged and opened by poll workers.

In 2008 both campaigns discovered hundreds of those absentee ballots had been rejected without just cause, and that created a secondary controversy that ran parallel to the recount and canvassing process.

"I'm happy to say that we have zero improperly rejected absentee ballots this year," Mansky said Thursday, "We only had 400 rejected absentees to begin with and many of those people ultimately did get to vote, either by a replacement ballot or ended up voting in person on election day."

And, unlike previous elections, absentee ballots couldn't be disqualified because the signature on the ballot envelope didn't match the signature on a voter registration card or roster. A drivers license number or the last four digits of a Social Security number are sufficient to match the voter to the rolls.

"No signature mismatches anymore," Weiner remarked, "If you've got poor penmanship your vote isn't taken away."

Mining absentees much tougher

In 2008 the Franken campaign petititioned the Supreme Court to allow wrongfully rejected absentee ballots to be opened and counted.  The high court okayed that unprecedented request, but only in cases where both campaigns agreed with local election officials.

The individual ballots were still sealed in envelopes, so it wasn't known who those absentee voters picked. But their names and addresses were known, so campaigns tried to gauge which ones were likely supporters. During the jurying process, operatives often held laptops with lists of voters in play.

The new law puts those rejected ballots out of bounds during the canvassing and recount process. Now they can only be revived and counted by the courts as part of a formal election contest trial.  And, unlike 2008, campaigns will have no say over which ballots are brought back into the mix.

Tom Emmer would be forced to take his case to trial if he wanted to mine the stack of 3,000 rejected absentee ballots.  And, in the unlikely scenario that all of them were Emmer votes, he'd still be several thousand votes behind Dayton.

Al Franken, who led by 49 after the hand recount in 2008, saw his lead increase to 225 during that absentee ballot phase of the recount.  Norm Coleman exercised his right to formally appeal the results, which led to a lengthy election contest trial in the winter and spring of 2009.

During that trial a three-judge panel allowed more absentees to be reconsidered and added to both candidate's totals, but that only served to stretch Franken's lead to 312 votes. Coleman conceded defeat June 30th, 2009 and Franken took office July 7th, seven months after the election.

(Copyright 2010 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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