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Minneapolis election director speaks: ‘Ballots in my car’ story false

By David Brauer | Wednesday, Nov.12, 2008
Fighting back against the U.S. Senate recount’s most enduring myth.

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:

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“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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.