Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

Minneapolis election director speaks: 'Ballots in my car' story false

You'd think Democrats would be content with last week's electoral rout. But judging from the odd doings in Minnesota, some in their party wouldn't mind adding to their jackpot by stealing a Senate seat for left-wing joker Al Franken. ... For example, there was Friday night's announcement by Minneapolis's director of elections that she'd forgotten to count 32 absentee ballots in her car. Wall Street Journal, Nov. 12

--

Mark Twain’s quip is that “a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” is proving apt when it comes to Minnesota’s recount.

The “car ballot” anecdote has become the tent pole for Republicans and allies raising doubts about the recount’s fairness. Sometimes, re-tellers get Minneapolis Elections Director Cindy Reichert’s gender wrong — as in this Toronto Globe and Mail story, or on Fox News Wednesday, when our own Gov. Tim Pawlenty said:

“As I understand it, and this is based on news accounts, he claims that even though they were in his car, that they were never outside of his security or area of control, so the courts allowed that.  It seems a little loose to me.”

Asked host Megyn Kelly, “What were they doing in his car?”

Pawlenty: “There has not been a good explanation for that, Kelly. That’s a very good question, but they’ve been included in the count pile which is concerning.”

Reichert is all too happy to provide an explanation. She says the “car ballot” story is “just not true,” painting a picture of normal balloting procedures twisted into something grotesquely misleading.

The “car ballot” story emerged Saturday from the mouth of Coleman lawyer Fritz Knaak, who, according to AP, told reporters, “We were actually told ballots had been riding around in her car for several days, which raised all kinds of integrity questions.”

Knaak never provided a source and did not return two MinnPost calls for comment. However, he was already backing off his story at the same press event. As that day’s Pioneer Press noted, “Knaak said he feels assured that what was going on with the 32 ballots was neither wrong nor unfair.”

Still, the lie that won’t die is that Reichert toted around ballots like an empty McDonald’s bag thrown into the back seat.

Before getting into the details, she makes three fundamental points:

1. The ballots were never in her car.

2. The ballots were never in anyone’s car for several days.

3. The ballots were never lost or forgotten, and spent Election Night until counting day in secure city facilities.

The sorting hats
OK, so were the ballots ever in a car?

Yes. But stow the outrage until you hear the details.

As most folks know, there were a ton of absentee ballots this year. State law mandates voters return absentee ballots to elections offices, such as the Government Center or City Hall. Officials then must deliver the ballots to individual precincts on Election Day for tallying. 

Since the "Star Trek" teleporter has not yet been invented, these ballots are driven to the polling places.

Yes, in cars — like they are every year, throughout Minnesota. (Ramsey County officials confirm they do this, too, for example.)

“What I find ludicrous is that this goes on all around the state,” Reichert says. “If we could process them [at City Hall] we’d love to do that.”

In Minneapolis, the cargo is transported by “precinct support judges,” one for each ward. Seven of the city’s 2008 “PSJs” were declared Democrats, three Republican, two independents and one listed no affiliation.

At about 7 p.m. Election Night, the county sent the city a batch of “uniformed overseas citizens” absentee ballots — from military personnel and Minnesotans living abroad. The ballots have two envelopes — an outer one with basic registration information, and an inner security envelope with the actual vote.

City Hall staff checks the outer envelope to assure registration validity. They then sort the envelopes into 131 Minneapolis precincts for delivery.

Ballots are further sorted byfive differing absentee-voting instructions. (For example, some electronically delivered overseas ballots don’t come back in machine-readable form, so precinct judges must transcribe them onto optically scannable sheets.)

Then they have to be handed to the PSJs, who have to travel a 10- or 11-precinct circuit so judges on-site can open the inner security envelope and cast the vote.

For this final batch, it all had to happen in as little as an hour.

Driving the ballots
The drivers went out about 7:30 p.m. Reichert soon heard from some who were worried they might not get to every precinct before closing. Once a precinct judge removes a tallying machine memory card, votes can no longer be counted there.

Reichert says she sent a broadcast message to each precinct’s lead judge to keep sites open, but not everyone received it. Some less-busy sites shut down before the drivers got there.

In accordance with longstanding procedures, the couriers immediately brought the uncounted, unopened ballots — 28 of the now-famous 32 — back to City Hall, where they were stored in a secure room.

(The other four ballots were accidentally unprocessed in the precincts, and were also returned that night to the same place.)

So: The ballots were in cars because state law mandates precinct counting. An election judge always had custody, and they were never “lost.” They were not in vehicles overnight and spent Election Night, and the next several nights, tucked away safely in City Hall.

The Saturday count
Reichert says the Coleman camp knew of the uncounted ballots on Thursday, when she told a volunteer “guardian of the ballots” about them. On Friday, Reichert called Coleman’s office to tell them they’d be counted Saturday; she doesn’t remember who took the call.

On Saturday, Coleman filed suit, with Knaak uttering his now-infamous quote.

Did Reichert use the word “lost” when talking to Coleman’s forces? “No!” she exclaims.

What about "car"?

She laughs. “I don’t know. We were all really tired on Thursday. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to recall what I said that made them think this. I talked to their attorney Friday night, explained this whole situation.”

So why weren’t the ballots counted until Saturday?

Reichert says she needed to get back each precinct's voter rolls to assure absentee voters didn't cast in-person ballots Election Day. Truckers bring back precinct supplies to the city’s elections warehouse throughout election week. Enough equipment came back Friday to count the first 28 votes Saturday.

For the record, those ballots, plus the four mistakenly uncounted precinct ones, made a final car trip that morning. They were driven from City Hall to the warehouse — accompanied by three election judges from differing parties.

In the end, Franken claimed 18 of the 32 votes and Coleman got seven. The rest were non-votes or for other candidates.

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

Comments (23)

Maybe with this information, coupled with the fact that Ritchie picked two Pawlenty-appointed Supreme Court justices to serve on the canvassing board with him, we could actually have an honest recount to see who the winner is. Or is that just naive? As a voter, I realize that elections need to be scrutinized to be fair, but the conspiracy theories and litigation threats from the GOP are just plain damaging to the civility of the electoral process here in MN. It is truly disheartening.

John Krogstad:

Did you even read this article? It debunks one of the key examples of alleged impropriety contained in both of your links! Does it bother you at all that you are repeating lies? I'm guessing you don't bother reading these comments either, but I hope you take time to consider what I have to say:

I'm sure lawyers from both sides will note anything unusual and address those issues with the appropriate election officials. If they don't believe their concerns are properly addressed in that arena, then and only then should it be appropriate to air them in public, for people like you to hyperlink everywhere possible.

In the meantime, it does no good (and probably much harm) for us to repeat unsubstantiated accusations. I learned that in elementary school, and it hasn't changed a bit in my adult life.

Thank you Jacob for you comment; it sheds welcome enlightenment on this issue.

Also, thank you David Brauer.

I have sent this story to CNN News in hopes of them getting past repeating what the likes of Fox News has presented on this subject.

Someone, please get this story right!!!

Roy Lewis
(former Minnesotan)
Atlanta, GA

Thank you David. However David, and you other commenters who think this will bring this particular misunderstanding to an end, no it won't. I cannot believe that all these Republican lawyers, and Tim Pawlenty himself, are as ignorant of election procedures as they pretend. Most commenters on news sites just can't be bothered to check out facts or they assume anything that contradicts Fox is a lie, but Pawlenty and Coleman know full well their charges are nonsense. They won't stop. I just ask that the press avoid making a falsely balanced pretense that both sides are trying to screw things up. Sometimes the truth isn't halfway between. You watch: conservatives will never drop the ballots in the car story, no matter how false they know it to be.

I agree Eric. It's an opportunity for both sides to continue to be a part of the post-election news cycle. And Fritz is right in the middle of it. Even if Joan Growe was still Sec'y of State, the outrage from the right would be just as overdramatized and ongoing.

OK, so two Pawlenty appointees sit on the panel to oversee the recount. Whoop-de-doo. The Dems don't need to get their knickers all twisted over that either. Both parties need to just shut up, observe and do whatever else the law allows them to do.

Let's all try and understand what probably
happened here.
So, after re-reading this story a few times,
I can see what a long day for the Judges and their workers can be. Which turned into a record voter turn out, the fatigue levels along with higher levels of anxiety, can make a nasty end of the day.
Miss-Information, from Miss-Understood Information over the phone, can turn into that “He said She said”, format with its accusations.
All this running around and trying to "beat the clock" by the judges is just a nutty way of
organization for tallying and gathering all the ballots in due process.
Yes, the whole state is doing it, but I can see what happens when some wires can and will get crossed!
Less we Not forget about Our People Over Seas in the American Armed Forces and Citizens through out the world, they All sure deserve a right to cast their vote.
How ever this turns out from the correct tallying in the weeks ahead, I hope the judges can learn from this mess to achieve better ways
to keep and get the ballots to their
destinations in more efficient ways.

David--
Great reporting! You are the Recount Man! The Oracle of the Over/Undervote!

Seriously, thanks for the detail, very interesting.

David,

Thank you for exhaustively debunking this story. This may well be one of the most important pieces of journalism in the record of this whole debacle. Let's hope this takes some of the wind out of the Freepers' sails. And shame on T Paw for repeating this lie. He knows better.

Leif Utne
(still Minnesotan in spirit)

Mr. Brauer,

Thanks for "Cherry-picking" this story. When you are outraged enough to deal with the behavior of Mr. Richie I will be anxious to read your fair and balanced report.

I cannot believe this story was allowed to fester as long as it did before someone came forward with the truth. Thank you, David, for doing your job as a journalist when no one else seemed interested. The Star Tribune missed this story, but had the space to let Katherine Kersten apply her usual idiocy to this subject.

I am not sure exactly what Ron Gotzman thinks was "cherry picked" here - does he dispute what the article says? There was a false story being circulated by a number of Republicans, including Governor Pawlenty, and Brauer completely debunked it. I would like to think that we are all interested in the truth, but sadly that may not be the case.

John Olson, I sort of appreciate you agreeing with me, except it looks like you didn't quite catch my meaning. I was saying that despite what you're falling for, assuming both sides are equally culpable, this isn't two-sided. Democrats haven't complained that I've heard because Pawlenty appointees are on the state canvassing board. In fact, having Republican appointees was a foregone conclusion. Walter Mondale is not in the middle of it. Where on Earth do you get that? The fact is only one party is spreading misinformation about what's going on, and that's the Republicans. I suspect they're doing it deliberately, though unlike Republicans, I don't assert my suspicions as fact. Come on Republicans, the comments show some of you are seeing this. Do you have even one shred of proof the DFL is stealing it? Even one shred? Or just questions that sounds suspicious as long as you ignore the answers?

One correction on one thing I said. I assumed by mentioning "Fritz" together with Joan Growe, John Olson was referring to Walter Mondale. I just found out Coleman's main lawyer is also nicknamed "Fritz". Sorry John, I thought you were taking a cheap shot.

So much for the "teleological-suspension-of-the-ethical"...and the incredible. Or you could say this now de-clarifies what was never clarified, sort of?

But as long as finding 'strayed ballots' is like searching for the last grains of rice, in the sand, by hand, after the sack is busted, ponder this...

I'm not responsible for this but my Great Aunt Bertha, God rest her cynical soul, just asked me..."What if a car full of unrecorded ballots were sureptitiously resting in the back seat of car of a ballot counter, and met head-on with a Brinks truck loaded with tons of 100 dollar bills from some Northeastern Minnesota bank... I ask you (Aunt Bertha asking), what would Ballot Counter be desperately chasing over the rivers and through the woods...ballots or bucks?"

Thank you for unearthing the details on how absentee ballots are handled on election day. Frankly, as a Town Clerk and election judge in Kanabec County, I could hardly believe what the media were saying about how 32 ballots ended up not being counting. I can confirm that the process, as Ms. Reichert explained it to you, is how things are handled. When I picked up my township's election materials -- including the electronic counter -- on Nov. 3rd from the County Auditor's office, my box of materials included absentee ballots. They traveled 22 miles from the courthouse to the town hall in my car. Are there risks involved? You bet! But, because state law requires that they be counted at the precinct, this is the only way to get them to the precinct for counting. Three of my township's election judges opened the 8 ballots we had and fed them into the electronic counter. We had to redo one ballot because the counter could not read it.

There is certainly room for improvement in Minnesota's election system. But I feel confident that election officials do their very best to comply with the law. The fact that we have a paper ballot to back up the electronic counter is a real plus. I am also confident that the recount will go smoothly. Both parties have a right to monitor the recount -- as they do the activity at every precinct in the state on election day.

Diana Rankin, Clerk, Pomroy Township, Kanabec County

I appreciate all of the comments made previously about this story. While some of them are less than insightful, they all show a true sense of opinion. Speaking of opinion, we may want to consider that the story in the WSJ cited by Mr. Brauer was an editorial in the opinion section. Likewise, Mr Knaak never purported to be stating factually that absentee ballots had been riding around in Cindy Reichert's car, but merely mentioned that they (the campaign, I imagine) had been told that the votes were riding around in her car and later stated that he felt assured it was neither wrong nor unfair. The fact that this story was validated further by Megyn Kelly is to be expected. It was not too long ago that I remember an MSNBC report that stated Sarah Palin thought Africa was a acountry and not a continent. MSNBC had to retract that story when they realized the informant was a phony. (see, here: http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5jiO_hn-5SfG9hdADHuRZ6hEDqNRAD94DQU5O0).

The real problem here is that Minnesota's election laws are antiquated, cumbersome, and ineffecient, and they probably lead to unintended consequences as seems to be the case here.

Aside from the issue of the supposed missing 32 votes, I am amazed that Mr. Brauer feels inclined to report on this minutia instead of the problem as a whole. I will not be so bold as to claim that any of the accusations made by the editorial in the WSJ are accurate or true, but it seems that most sources agree that "On Wednesday morning Sen. Norm Coleman led Al Franken by 725 votes. By Wednesday night the lead was 477 votes. By Thursday night it was 336. As of Monday morning, it's 204." (Joe Fryer, KARE 11 News). Now, I don't know this Joe Fryer or any of the other Minnesotan journalists, so maybe he is a right-wing nut job, but no one has repudiated the numbers, so it seems likely that they are accurate. If they are accurate, then the numbers do seem dubious and concerning. While we all understand that the vote totals can change post election day, my understanding is that they likely will change for both candidates and significantly in favor of one candidate. Therefore, whether or not there were 32 votes driving around in a car (which induces an odd image), there seems to be sufficient circumstantial evidence to proceed with legal action on this matter.

By the way, if the following link works, it is kind of funny (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPv1wsE1-xI).

By the way, the sentence including "and significantly in favor of one candidate" was meant to read "and not significantly in favor of one candidate."

The reason that Mr. Brauer reported on this "minutia" is that it is a false story that is being used to discredit the Minnesota election system and the Secretary of State. Regardless of whether it was an editorial or not, the WSJ wrote about this false story. Coleman's attorney repeated this false story. Governor Pawlenty went on national TV and talked about this false story. I don't think that would be happening if this was simply minutia.

Even now, with the truth out there, Mr. Huff is making statements like "whether or not there were 32 votes driving around in a car(which induces an odd image)." It does produce an odd image, which is why it is important to let people know that it is absolutely false.

As to the changing votes, as anyone familiar with elections will tell you, it is not at all unusual. And despite Mr. Huff's claim to the contrary, there have not been significant shifts in favor of one candidate. Nearly three million votes were case, and the changes total a few hundred votes or a fraction of one percent.

Thanks David for this great investigation. However, no one, yourself included, is addressing the real issue: This vote is a tie.

Right now the difference is standing at something like 0.007% which is simply too precise for this process to accurately measure. A roughly analogous situation would be if the refs at a football game got down on their hands and knees and really argued over those 4th and inches calls - Was the chain stretched exactly tight enough? Instant replay to make sure the spot was exactly right?

The problem is that no matter how many machines we try to insert into this system, it will still be a human endeavor done way to infrequently to perfect by a bunch of minimally trained volunteers. I'm not trying to knock the system. On the contrary, I think it works remarkably well and I am deeply grateful to all those folks who give up their days to make it work.

We just need to realize that below a certain level, which is certainly much higher than 0.007%, we are well under the margin of error for this tool and we should have a fair and predetermined method of resolving these instances even if it is a simple as flipping a coin. What's going on now doesn't help anyone.

I'm glad to hear that both of the too-good-to-be-true horror stories -- the ballots in the car and the disenfranchised octogenarian -- were, well, not true.

But I am curious about the obvious problem with the tweaking of the numbers. As far as I can tell, every update, so far, has resulted in a gain for Franken. And we're not even into the recounts, but are -- so we're told -- simply correcting typos and such. Is there some explanation as to why at least most of the corrected errors initially favored Coleman?

Regarding the comment immediately above:

Without knowing how many ballots were "corrected" it's impossible to say most of them favored Franken. If it were, say, 30,000 hard to read/damaged/mis-entered/whatever ballots and 14,800 went for Coleman while 15,200 went for Franken, well, yes that's a gain for the latter, but I'd hardly say "most of the corrected errors initially favored Coleman." That seems to be a recurring theme in close/recounted races: Just because re-examining hundreds of thousands or even millions of votes changes or even reverses one candidates triple digit lead doesn't make it a wild perturbation. It simply LOOKS that way because it was so close to begin.

Aside from that I just wanted to say I really enjoy Mr. Rosenbergs books, even if I had to go to Norway to get the last two (on the upside, my girlfriend's reading them now, too.)

The false car story keeps getting repeated...see here on CNET
http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-10101827-38.html

Jack Huff: Actually, MSNBC didn't retract the story about Sarah Palin thinking that Africa was a country. What they retracted was their identification of the source of the story (which by the way was on Fox, not MSNBC).

This information is in the post you cited (http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5jiO_hn-5SfG9hdADHuRZ6hEDqNRAD94DQU5O0), which says:

"The hoax was limited to the identity of the source in the story about Palin — not the Fox News story itself. While Palin has denied that she mistook Africa for a country, the veracity of that report was not put in question by the revelation that Eisenstadt is a phony.