Why Franken will win (this is only a theory)

Three professors (two from Dartmouth, one from UCLA) have published a paper (PDF) showing why many pundits believe that the recount favors Al Franken.

It mostly comes down to what are often called “undervotes” (although these three professors complicate the terminology and call them “residual ballots.” Read the full paper if you need to know why.)

If you are just tuning in, “undervotes” is a term that became familiar during the Florida recount of 2000. It refers to a ballot that, when read by the vote-counting machine, registers a valid vote in some races but not others. Did the voter intend to skip a race, or simply make a mark that the machine couldn’t read?

In the current case, the relevant ballots were mostly those that registered a preference for president but none for senator. Apparently there were more than 30,000 such ballots that registered no preference in the Senate race.

The vast majority of these will turn out to be exactly what the machines first thought they were — ballots cast by citizens who intentionally left the Senate portion blank because they didn’t want to vote for any of the candidates. It’s no secret, for example, that Barack Obama was more popular than Franken (or else we wouldn’t be having this recount, now would we?) Some Obama voters simply didn’t vote in the Senate race. An additional clue, according to the three professors, is that the concentration of such undervotes was high in precincts with a lot of African-American voters.

But some of voters who cast those approximately 34,000 undervotes surely tried to vote for a Senate candidate (this is confirmed based on the first night of the recount) but made a mark on the ballot in the Senate race but the machine didn’t read, presumably because they didn’t fill in the oval thoroughly enough.

In many of these cases, the visual examination of the ballot will determine the voters’ intent and someone will gain a vote. If 10 percent of the undervotes turn out to show discernible voter intent, that would be plenty of votes to change the result, depending on the breakdown of the newly counted votes.

The next step in the analysis is knowing where these undervotes were concentrated. The three professors analyzed those precincts and found that they were mostly areas of DFL strength in the last two elections. Therefore they concluded that the majority of the undervotes that turn out to be countable will be votes for Franken. They imply but do not state that this will be enough to change the outcome. And this is only an educated surmise.

Bear in mind, in addition to the undervotes, there are those absentee ballots that were rejected. We don’t know yet whether the Canvassing Board will look at those ballots to see whether some of them should be counted (as the Franken campaign has asked) or whether they will be subject to court action that follows the recount.

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Comments (12)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/20/2008 - 10:36 am.

    Franken’s Legal Team Makes First Huge Blunder


  2. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 11/20/2008 - 10:39 am.

    I like to say it this way:

    The recount picks up the lazy and sloppy people who didn’t follow directions. And the lazy and sloppy vote is heavily DFL.

    That way, I offend Democrats by suggesting that our constituents have something wrong with them AND offend Republicans by telling them they’re about to lose.

    I think offending everyone equally is about as good as we can get out of this.

  3. Submitted by Ross Williams on 11/20/2008 - 10:52 am.

    “Undervote” is a term that applies to people who voted, but didn’t vote for a particular office or measure. Like any vote count, the undervote count is subject to error. But the term itself has nothing to do with vote counting.

    Of course there was some under-counting of votes by machines. But is there any reason to think that was more likely to happen to Franken voters than Coleman voters? By itself, the fact that there was a larger undervote for the senate race in DFL areas doesn’t really indicate that.

    As you point out, the larger than normal undervote in the Senate race probably reflects Franken’s relative popularity to Obama. As a result, you would expect a larger portion of the Senate undervote to be in DFL areas.

    A related issue, raised in the Duluth newspaper, is that older machines do a worse job of counting poorly marked ballots. If older machines are more likely to have been used in DFL areas, such as the Iron Range precinct in the Duluth newspaper’s example, then Franken would be likely to pick up more votes than Coleman in the hand count.

    For Franken to win, there almost has to be some disparity in the vote counts based on location. Otherwise you would expect changes in the count to offset one another. This is a vote by vote change, you aren’t going to have 100 vote data entry errors the way you did during the reporting of the original count.

  4. Submitted by Erich Russell on 11/20/2008 - 01:13 pm.

    Just to be doggedly contrarian:

    Behind the headlines, the back story is that day one of the re-count projects a Coleman win by about 100 votes. Half of Franken’s gain comes from an artifact involving Eveleth voting on outdated scanners. Statewide we still have precincts reporting “lost” votes three to one over precincts finding gains. The most probable cause is election judge error in handling jams and misfeeds. Most of those happen in the sorter after the ballot has been read. It appears that a few judges re-ran jammed ballots counting them twice.

    Surprise, surprise… the campaigns are only challenging truly doubtful ballots. If that doesn’t change, those 1200 or so should come out near even and can’t make up anything like 100 votes. The first day polling represented a sample (15%) that was about two percent skewed to Coleman. He lost 70 votes to Franken’s 27, hence the net gain. That predicts that Franken will lose traction as the votes counted even out. This morning the Strib reports Hennepin County at 560,000 counted with Coleman down 16 and Franken down 19. The undervote is not the dominant feature here. We have lost votes out numbering gains to this point. If that continues Coleman narrowly wins the re-count as well.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/20/2008 - 03:26 pm.

    And we’re still left with two candidates separated by less than the margin of error of the voting process and getting 42% of the vote.
    Not a satisfying outcome.
    The best solution is still a runoff.

  6. Submitted by Jeff Kline on 11/20/2008 - 03:33 pm.

    Here is the way I see it. Right now if I heard it right, Georgia being one, and Minnesota being the other, are 2 shy of giving the Democrats control of the senate. I am not normally a proponent of the “black helicopter” theories, but the fact is that there is heavy push both in GA and here to make sure things swing democratic. I smell a rat and it’s a rather large one at that. But; we’ll have to see how it wrings out.

  7. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/20/2008 - 06:17 pm.

    “I smell a rat ….”
    So you’re saying that Democrats should not follow state recount laws so that they won’t be accused of rigging the elections?
    I think you’re looking in the wrong place for your conspiracy; you seem to be implying that Democrats are actively trying to rig the results.
    Can you actually support anything beyond a candidate trying to achieve a fair and legal outcome, which is what democracy is about?

  8. Submitted by Thomas Eckhardt on 11/20/2008 - 07:39 pm.

    “there is heavy push both in GA and here”

    Well, there’s and election in Georgia and it’s seeing a heavy push by both Democrats and Republicans. That’s what usually happens in elections. And since the GA Sec of State is Republican, how can you imply that there is something illegal/unethical trying to push the result to the Democrats?

  9. Submitted by S Olson on 11/21/2008 - 09:45 am.

    I think it’s fine for professors to work out calculation about where the votes will come from and how they’ll swing. If for no other reason, if the actual results diverge wildly, then it will be an indication that something may be wrong with the count.
    The last time that happened (that I’m aware of) was in the Chambliss/Cleland election. As I remember it, the precincts that voted with Diebold touchscreen machines voted in a way that didn’t line up with exit polling, which is reported to be quite accurate. This disparity was enough for Chambliss to make up for the fact that he was lagging in the polls going into the election.
    But hopefully nothing like that will happen in Minnesota.

  10. Submitted by Jeff Kline on 11/21/2008 - 01:19 pm.

    I meant what I said about something up with this. Franken’s lawyers are even challenging the ballots tossed because of problems. This appears to be on the outside a “Win at any cost or at least get us to the point that the Senate makes the call”. If we come to that, guess which way the Senate will vote??? Talk about voter disenfranchisement??!! I still don’t like it guys! That’s just my position on it all.

  11. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/22/2008 - 11:48 am.

    By law, if you vote for two candidates for the same office your vote is not counted.

    If this happens, the voting maching tells you about it before accepting your ballot and offers you the opportunity to take your ballot back, get a new ballot, and try again.

    You CAN, however, CHOOSE to have that vote IGNORED and have the rest of the ballot accepted. If you do that, that in itself is a choice to have your vote for that office ignored.

    But WHY you would do that complicates matters. If you clearly indicated that one of the votes was a mistake, and you just did not want to bother to fill out another whole ballot, you might choose not to have your vote for that office counted.

    Whether such votes legitimately ignored by the voting machine should be counted is questionable.
    Some say “The voter made a CHOICE not to be counted. The law is the law. Do not count that vote.” Some say “Every vote should count. Machines are not perfect. The manual recount should control.” Often, it depends on which side the vote favors.

    What do you think?

  12. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/22/2008 - 11:49 am.

    On the Absentee Ballots:

    Absentee ballots that were not permitted to be counted were not “spoiled” ballots. They were ballots where the outside envelope did not have the legally required information or where the signature was doubtful compared to the original registration signature.

    Quite a bit of info on that envelope must be verfied for the ballot inside to be admitted and sent on to the precinct. Time limits also apply, to allow for the necessary checks.

    It is to be expected that the person ahead without those ballots will want strict application of the law.

    The person behind may want the law to be “bent” in hopes of gaining some advantage.

    I, for one, hope the law is NOT bent, regardless of who is ahead. I do not want “every vote” to be counted, only “every properly cast vote”, if the laws in place are to be respected.

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