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Franken-Coleman Senate Recount: Flap over felon votes shows GOP playing fast and loose with facts

Editor's note: This post also appeared at the University of Minnesota Press blog here.

I have watched from afar — and with lots of bemusement — the recent dustup over the alleged number of supposed felons who may have registered and perhaps voted on Nov. 4, 2008, in Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race.

After all, my life has been immersed in the Al Franken-Norm Coleman recount for nearly two years - first, covering all of the twists and turns of the recount for MinnPost, and then writing my book, “This Is Not Florida: How Al Franken Won the Minnesota Senate Recount.” It’s now completed and will be released in a few months. Had I the chance, I would have made this current controversy a tiny footnote in my conclusions.

One point I make in the book is that various panels of judges and even former Sen. Coleman’s lawyer in court said there was no widespread fraud in the election.

Still, Minnesota Majority, a very conservative “watchdog” group, released a report (PDF) on June 28 that claims a lot of things. But when you get to the bottom line, the group seems to be saying that according to its research, 341 felons in Hennepin and Ramsey counties who should have been ineligible to vote actually cast votes in the Franken-Coleman election.

The report, flawed in the opinion of most legal analysts, got legs and wings and Internet echo chamber reverberations from — who else? — Fox News last week, and then other news organizations chased it, and right-wing blogs jumped on it, and the Minnesota Republican Party called for a statewide investigation and Coleman called Franken “an accidental senator” and Gov. Tim Pawlenty said there was “credible evidence” that the alleged felons who maybe voted possibly could have flipped the election’s final result. Breathless.

Franken, if you remember, won by 312 votes.

Sen. Al Franken
REUTERS/Rich Clement
Sen. Al Franken

Let’s drill down a little bit. First, let’s look at the reporting. Fox News, which has its agenda, of course, topped its online story with this screaming headline: “Felons Voting Illegally May Have Put Franken Over the Top in Minnesota, Study Finds.” Fox News also quoted Ramsey County prosecutor Phil Carruthers as saying that as his office looks into the matter, “There is a good chance we may match or even exceed their numbers."

But days later, Star Tribune reporter Kevin Diaz — a former colleague whom I tend to trust more than Faux News — quoted Carruthers as saying of the Minnesota Majority investigation: "Overwhelmingly, their statistics were not accurate.” Hmmm. Something changed.

Now, let’s take one key stat that Minnesota Majority focuses on, that 341 alleged felons from heavily Democratic Hennepin and Ramsey counties voted. For the moment, take that at face value.

That would mean, based on voter turnout numbers, about 70 percent of them (240) would be from Hennepin and 30 percent (101) would be from Ramsey. Taking into account the percentages for Franken, Coleman and others in each of those counties, Franken would net 51 votes.

Remember, he won by 312. Let’s take away those 51 in this silly game. That still isn’t enough to switch the result.

The report has been the stuff of high-level discussion at The Election Law Blog run by respected professor Rick Hasen at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. There, professor Michael P. McDonald of George Mason University shoots down the Minnesota Majority report when answering Hasen’s opening question: “Did enough illegal felons vote in Minnesota to tip the balance to Al Franken?”

Norm Coleman
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Norm Coleman

A few other things: What makes anyone think felons would only vote for Franken? Indeed, it was Franken’s legal team during the recount’s election contest trial that raised the prospect that felons voted in the election; Franken’s lawyers found one such voter in a northern Minnesota county who voted for Coleman. Dare I ask: If Franken opened the door on such an avenue, why didn’t Coleman’s lawyers pursue this felon-voting issue then? They had their chance. And why does the Minnesota Majority report focus on the core-city counties?

In my book, you will see a handful of flubs made by both sides in the recount legal battle.

Several things gnaw at me in this story:

1. First is the implication that if voter ID cards were used on Election Day, felons wouldn’t be able to vote. This is a longstanding Republican issue to limit voting among the disenfranchised. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer has used this controversy to call for picture IDs for voters. But guess what? Convicted felons have driver’s licenses. They have photo IDs. Voter photo IDs wouldn’t halt felons from voting. This Minnesota Majority report is being used for other political reasons.

2. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, just instructive, but I’d like to comment on the comments of Sen. Coleman and Gov. Pawlenty. As we know, Coleman won the 2002 Senate election 11 days after incumbent Sen. Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash. Polls showed Wellstone was going to win that election. For Coleman to call Franken “an accidental senator” is tragically ironic, for there are some who believe Coleman was the original accidental senator.

As for the governor, he has spoken three times about the recount, and he’s been a bit fast and loose with his facts. First, in the early days of the recount, he spread — on Fox News — the completely untrue story about Minneapolis ballots that were supposedly being driven around in the alleged trunk of an unknown and non-existent elections official. He spoke of this days after it was reported that the story was a fable.

This is Not Florida

Later, in a call with reporters, he overstated by thousands of percentage points the increase of absentee voters in 2008, trying to say that Franken won the election because of that.

In fact, Franken won the recount by 49 votes BEFORE absentee ballots were counted.

Now, there are his comments — on Fox News — about the Minnesota Majority report and how it’s “quite possible” felon voting tipped the election. The facts aren’t there.

3. The central fact that real felons whose voting rights were legally taken away and not restored might have voted in 2008 — that is serious. That matter should be examined closely by state and county officials. There’s no argument there.

4. If there is any doubt that the 2014 Franken re-election campaign against anyone — Pawlenty? — is going to be nasty and heated and ugly, this latest scuffle confirms it. Sen. Franken will forever be a target for the Republicans, and if it is close again, be certain that Republican recount strategies and legal tactics will be different from 2008-09.

You can read how they did this time 'round in “This Is Not Florida.” But be assured the Coleman-Franken recount and legal fight — a huge defeat for the Republicans — will be a rallying cry for the GOP in any future recount tussle.

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Comments (32)

"For Coleman to call Franken “an accidental senator” is tragically ironic, for there are some who believe Coleman was the original accidental senator."

No one will ever suggest Franken's "victory" was an accident anymore...it's pretty obvious that it's the result of meticulous plotting and a careful, deliberate execution.

It's been pointed out, mostly by leftists, that we will never know who these felons voted for.

The point that is being lost is that it is now a clear and undeniable fact that despite protestations to the contrary, mostly by leftists, that election fraud is unknown in Minnesota the truth is that election fraud is only unknown because until the Minnesota Majority stepped up to do the Secretary of State's job for him, there was no one willing to make it known.

It's known now and the question remains, "what are we going to do about it?"

I enjoyed reading your "advertisement column" for your book. Good job on hooking the readers with an editorial-style heading.

Oh my...where is Don Quixote when we need him?

Jay,

It's worth noting that among the elections reforms that passed recently, there will be beefed-up scrutiny of voting rosters as they compare to updated felon lists, and there will be an automatic investigation of same-day registrants after the election to catch any ineligible voters who warrant prosecution.

This very pertinent fact seems to have been lost in the discussion of the trumped up "report." Also lost is the fact that the felon-related reforms were championed by Mark Ritchie, passed once and were vetoed by Pawlenty for no credible reason, before they finally passed again and were signed into law.

Swift, you will probably find that life goes better for you if you start acknowledging facts when you encounter them. There's just nothing here other than what has been manufactured and you're much too smart not to know it. Blindly supporting your ideology without applying any reason makes you an easy victim for the spin machine, and it will probably cost you your sanity some day if you keep twisting your intelligence into a pretzel shape in order to accommodate what you want to see. You seem to be bright enough to grasp that republican leaders are using this release by Minnesota Majority to further their election strategies, so I can only conclude that you are choosing to ignore the obvious. Perhaps you are thinking that you are terribly clever and able to verbally outmaneuver your perceived opponents on this site. Sorry friend, but it's just becoming sad. At least all these "rightist" leaders know what they're saying isn't true, even as they cynically fan the flames on Fox.

If one looks at any election, one will find this level of irregularity or considerably more. It amounts to nothing and everyone can see that.

In the refusal of the GOP to accept the results of one of the most carefully-observed senate recounts in the history of this nation, let alone the state of Minnesota, I believe we can clearly see two things:

1) From the GOP perspective, there's no such thing as a fair and honest fight which they lose. In their minds, it's only fair if they win. If they do lose, no matter how carefully and legally that loss was accomplished and documented, they go to the typical ten-year-old mentality and shout to the moon, "It wasn't fair!" (and start being spoiled, naughty boys and girls trying to get even with whoever isn't letting them get their way).

2) In whatever they accuse those who defeated them of "unfairly" doing in order to accomplish that defeat we can clearly see the types of things they, themselves will stoop to and feel justified in stooping to in order to win (at all costs?) the next time around.

3) Kids with dysfunctions which make it difficult if not impossible to grow up and out of this phase in their developmental processes often end up in out-of-home placements and/or juvenile detention, but what do we do with adult GOPers?

One of the worst things a high-ranking elected offical can do is to denigrate for no good reason the legitimacy of the electoral processs. It's despicable to give aid and comfort to a movement based on the premise that leaders such as Obama and Franken are not holding office because of fair elections but are instead the results of some anti-American plot.

Our governor may not think that much beyond his ambitions to appeal to the Tea Pary crowd, but his comments should disqualify him from serious consideration for national office.

It's very clear to me why this "study" focused on Hennepin and Ramsey counties: facts don't matter, the aim is to paint an image for low-information white people of non-white street thugs (a favorite description of our president among the RW) stealing an election. The "study" is a pencil sketch; the governor inks it.

I received this email from Joe Mansky, Ramsey County's election chief and one of the state's top election procedure and law experts. Mr. Mansky has permitted me to post it here.

I agree with your analysis, namely that this is less about 2008 and more about the politics of voter ID in 2011 and the future. As you note, voter ID would have no impact on this issue, since most if not all felons have a driver’s license.

And here are my thoughts about #3 – clearly there is a problem with some convicted felons voting. The numbers are very small, and likely have not affected the outcome of any election in the recent past. But nonetheless, even small problems need a solution. My solution, which I am prepared to propose to the legislature next year, is to have the names of persons serving felony sentences appear on the polling place rosters as challenged voters. That way, our election judges will know definitively who they are and have a mechanism to prevent them from voting. It’s low cost, can be implemented rapidly and should be effective.

Right at the moment, we have 1,014 persons whose voter records are challenged in Ramsey County as a consequence of being convicted of a felony. I assume (maybe guess is a better word) that there is another thousand or so additional persons whose felony conviction preceded their registration as a voter and who, as a consequence, are not yet challenged, These are the names that would need to be added to our voter list.

"The best defense is a good offense," said Tom verbigeratively.

Jay,
While it still doesn't bear enough votes to tip the election, it is worth noting that there has been research done on the tendencies of felons to vote for Democrats.

http://www.soc.umn.edu/~uggen/Uggen_Manza_ASR_02.pdf

Specifically, pages 10 and 11. As the table shows, in some years, up to 80% of felons vote for the Democratic candidate, and thats nationwide. In a blue state like Minnesota, does that percentage increase? Maybe, maybe not, but it is worth noting. I know not every felon voted for Franken, but scholarly data certainly shows that there is a tendency for felons to vote Democratic.

To Mr. Swift:

All that is known now is that allegations have been made. They are being investigated by Mr. Carruthers of the Ramsey County Attorney's Office. As far as I can tell he is still investigating. In their rush to judgment, some media seem to have prejudged the outcome. Why don't people calm down and wait for the investigation to be completed if they are really interested in the truth?

The 24/7 "news" cycle gets in the way of reasoned investigations quite regularly these days.

Fact.

The Ramsey county attorney has acknowledged 28 cases of felony election fraud have been charged, 17 are being prepared for indictment and 182 are still being investigated.

Fact.

That is 227 votes now in question, just in one county, out of a margin of 312.

Fact.

Those cases, along with a number not yet determined from other counties, make bufoons of leftist politicians and Democrat party operatives that were proclaiming this election was spotless.

Fact.

They were wrong.

One of the most discouraging news articles I've read recently published yesterday in the New York Times, said facts do not matter much to people, especially to dedicated ideologues. "This human tendency is deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds."
There are a number of reasons: one has to do with all the information coming our way. Another has to do with self-esteem. "If you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated."
This is why people know who Glenn Beck and Limbaugh are, but are mostly unfamiliar with, say, FactCheck. Facts are not important. One of my born-again right-wing cousins insists that somehow a grant to teachers (which I could not find) in California is Marxist is totally deaf to any reason here. Of course, he sees anything he does not like (and that's most things) as Marxist, Communist, Socialist, Facist . . . is that it? Also atheistic.
Providing him facts is a waste of time as I suspect is the case with Thomas Swift.
Truly unfortunate, since this election lie may travel pretty far. Look at the Swiftboaters did to Kerry: when it first surfaced, I could not believe that people would believe Kerry was lying, a coward, never served, or whatever, and that Bush was a patriotic veteran.

Voting, to my understanding, is a right of citizenship.

While felons lose certain liberty rights as a consequence of conviction, I am not aware of any basis by which they have lost citizenship temporarily.

The solution for future elections is to let felons vote.

Right-wingers are still dragging out the allegations against ACORN that a federal judge has declared baseless.

They are still calling Mark Dayton a chicken for closing his office when a post-9/11 alert level was set very high -- without mentioning that the Senate was not in session, all the senators had gone home, and only staff remained in Dayton's or others' offices. While he was in Minnesota, he closed his office to protect staff members.

They will drag out these (potential? fictional? vaguely possible?) unproven allegations every time they want to harm Al Franken OR (just as likely) Mark Ritchie in order to get Mary Kiffmeyer back in charge of who doesn't get to vote.

It is interesting to note that the only recent election mathematically proven to be stolen was the selection of GWB by an activist Supreme Court, with GWB going on to promote and conduct multiple unconstitutional acts.

Where was Mr. Swift's outrage at those times?

The solution of creating a list of persons inelligble to vote by comparing court records has a serious flaw. The records are often incomplete and out of date. Every day hundreds of people's criminal status changes - some with new charges, some following a sentencing, some who have completed all their probation and parole plus other outcomes. The court lists are only updated over night, and mistakes are often made. The recent updates to the criminal court records systems have made monumental progress is allowing access to data, but it simply isn't going to be timely enough to come up with an accurate 'list' after more than 24 hours.

Before anyone latches onto this 'list' solution they need to spend some time in a courtroom and then more time trying to compare what happened in court to the data in the court records.

Mr. Swift,

As pointed out earlier your arguments are a smokescreen to hide behind, because your candidate, Mr. Coleman, lost the election.

Fact: Both various panels of judges and even former Sen. Coleman’s lawyer in court said there was no widespread fraud in the election.

Fact: No one said this election was spotless.

Fact: Not all buffoons are leftists.

Now go out and make the world safe from felons voting. But in the meantime your whining about Franken being somehow unfairly elected is not going to change a thing. Your silence on other elections - where the right party (that would be the GOP) won under questionable circumstances - is deafening.

Will Tom continue to run head first into a brick wall while muttering verbigeratively: "Felons for Franken stole the election?"

From past performance, wouldn't surprise me at all.

Ciao.

Thomas
Making the assumption that all your "facts" are true, can you kindly give us one more "fact"

Who did these felons actually vote for??????

Without that "fact" the others are irrelevant.

Jay:

That was a shameless plug for your upcoming book. Thanks to the discussion, I think that I know enough about the book and about you to avoid that read. Your statements about Fox News, "Fox News, which has its agenda, of course," and "Faux News", tip your hand to the point that I could write the final page of your yet-to-be published book. Of course, right-minded news sources like CNN & MSNBC have no agenda.

Ginny (#13):

I took your advice and consulted Factcheck regarding the latest Franken-Coleman dust-up. I could not find a word about it. You must not be fact checking, which leads me to believe that you might be the type of dedicated ideologue you are talking about.

Mr Swift and kindred spirits

Fact. The Republicans challenged the election results in court.

Fact. Our states highest court gave Republicans every opportunity to bring forward evidence of problems in the election.

Fact. Republicans stipulated that fraud was not an issue in the election

Fact. The State of Minnesota Supreme Court declared the election free and fair, if imperfect, and Al Franken won.

What is wrong with Republicans that they can not accept any public decision unless it goes their way? Why must facts always be spin, twisted, misinterpreted so that Republicans are the victims? Is it the Republican plan going forward to challenge EVERY election as unfair when they lose?

"Fox News, which has its agenda, of course,"

Here is Sharron Angle (challenging Harry Reid for Nevada Senate) in an interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network (via Politico’s Ben Smith )

BRODY: When you’re on Fox News or talking to more conservative outlets but maybe not going on “Meet the Press” or a “This Week”, those type of news shows, then the perception and the narrative starts to be like you are avoiding those mainstream media outlets.

ANGLE: Well, in that audience will they let me say I need $25 dollars from a million people go to Sharron Angle.com send money? Will they let me say that? Will I get a bump on my website and you can watch whenever I go on to a show like that we get an immediate bump. You can see the little spinners. People say ‘Oh, I heard that. I am going and I’m going to help Sharron out because they realize this is a national effort and that I need people from all around the nation. They may not be able to vote for me but they can certainly help.”

[http://thinkprogress.org/2010/07/14/angle-fundraising-fox/]

I'm curious about the felons we're discussing. The word is so loaded one pictures 300+ murderous thugs deliberately swarming metro polls to swing an election.
As I understand it, felonies range from check fraud to simple theft, multiple DWIs and numerous other crimes up to and including murder. I also understand that felons in MN are able to vote after completing their sentence and any probationary/parole requirements. So maybe some of the 300 just didn't realize they weren't yet eligible to vote. Maybe some were white collar criminals who would naturally have voted for the Republican, judging Mr. Coleman to be more tolerant of over-exuberant business entrepreneurs.

Perhaps we should all be issued new voter registration cards (mine is somewhere in a junk drawer)which would be confiscated when the voter is convicted of a felony. Once all debt to society has been paid, the card would be returned.
At any rate, whatever we do to curb rabid voters, I hope we don't expect our octagenarian poll workers to subdue any who demand a ballot at gunpoint.

Stephan (#22):

As reported (parroted) by CNN Politics on June 25th:

"Bill Clinton: 'Please donate $5 or more' to help Dem win Florida"

http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2010/06/25/bill-clinton-please-dona...

Howard (#21):

As I recall, there was no spinning or whining about the outcome in Florida in 2000. Jay's book will put that misconception to rest. Look up stream in this thread; ten years later and it goes on and on.

I have to chuckle every time I see Mr. Swift and other right wingers use the term "fraud" in connection with this issue. While it may be technically true that a felon (for whom voting rights have not been restored) who casts a vote has committed voter fraud, that is not what Mr. Swift implies. He is hoping that by repeated use of the term, it will cause people to think that there was *organized* fraud on the part of Democrats; i.e., that they recruited the felons, told them how to vote, and probably drove them to the polls as well.

It doesn't trouble him that there is no indication that any such thing occurred, no such allegation even by the wing-nuts, that this was the most scrutinized election in memory and that the whole recount was handled according to the most exacting standards and openness. He just can't get over the fact that his guy lost, and to (horrors!) Al Franken of all people. So he's happy to sling around terms like "fraud" and hope that people will think the election was rigged, and this was another stolen election - just like the Presidency in 2000. Of course, the 2000 election was stolen, and I don't recall ever seeing Mr. Swift express any outrage about that. Well, it's hard to muster ethical outrage when your guy wins, and wins the top prize at that, eh Mr. Swift? I guess ethical standards are relative.

As for the senatorial election not being "spotless" - no election ever is. Since humans run the elections and humans are fallible, there are always errors. And, no doubt, there are always a few felons voting too. But Minnesota elections have long set the standard for how to do them right, and that hasn't changed. I've yet to see a human devised system that is perfect. Even space shuttles occasionally blow up, and consider the resources that go into the design and operation of NASA's systems. Much less the messy business of politics. But, when it's your boy - who should have had a lock on the election but didn't - who loses an election, and to a *left wing comedian*, for God's sake, well, obviously there has to be something nefarious going on.

Mr. Swift's logical contortions are reminiscent of Escher, his "outrage" is amusing, and his desperation is almost (almost) heart-rending, but in the end, there is no "there" there.

There was voter fraud. Many insisted that there wasn't. They were of course wrong. Now, of course, no one ever said that there was no voter fraud. Bull.

In the future, we will probably treat voter fraud just like illegal immigration. We might even need to legislate reasonable grounds to investigate voter fraud.

Probably FactCheck never investigated the Franken-Coleman recount because there was nothing to investigate and no one raised the issue once it was decided.

I must say that of all the "facts" presented by leftist apologists, I'm finding the most compelling to be "Your side had it's chance to make your complaints of fraud, and now it's too late".

Is there a plank in the Democrat party's platform stating "It's not wrong if we don't get caught right away.", or are you folks just making it up as you go?

In any case, it's highly informative...thanks for the insight.

Ginny (#27):

Remember, central to this discussion is a book about the Coleman-Franken recount. If there is "nothing to investigate", this will be a short and dull book.

Perhaps, FactCheck is a better thing to recommend to others than to use yourself.

Thanks Jay for sorting through the facts -- though your response clearly only speaks to the 'reality based'.
The issue that I'm afraid will continue to be lost here is also a serious one. Exclusion of felons from voting clearly has a disparate effect in parallel with disparate charges and conviction rates for poor and minority populations. Some felons do have their voting rights reinstated, but that requires some help from lawyers and some money. The felon exclusion serves to disenfranchise a great number of voters with a vital interest in the outcome of elections. Rather than extending the scrutiny of voter registrations and risking mistaken exclusion of some, it is time to end the practice and extend voting rights to all citizens.

After following this election to the point of obsession I am very excited about this book. To ensure that I have the opportunity to read it and in an effort to help education the public at large I requested that the Dakota County Library purchase this book. I just checked the library catalog and the book is now listed and I hold the first request for the book. Oh happy day!

"the truth is that election fraud is only unknown because until the Minnesota Majority stepped up to do the Secretary of State's job for him, there was no one willing to make it known."

If only someone from this Minnesota Majority group, like its executive director Mary Kiffmeyer, could have recently served as Secretary of State for eight years or so, like from 1998-2006, we could have exposed this election fraud years ago! Damn leftists!