Why are there duplicate ballots? And why is the Coleman campaign arguing about how they were counted?
When you have a recount in an election this close and this important, it’s amazing how many different categories of controversy can be created. Meet the next big argument in the recount (which the state Canvassing Board is considering this morning): the issue of duplicate ballots.
(If you’re wondering why I’m dealing with this today, it’s because the Canvassing Board said this morning that it will decide the issue tomorrow.)
Duplicate ballots are created when there are ballots that can’t be fed into the counting machines. Why? The most typical case (according to elections managers Rachel Smith of Anoka County and Joe Mansky of Ramsey County, who kindly explained all this to me) involves ballots cast by military personnel stationed far away. Those men and women (and thank you for your service) receive ballots via email, print them out on their computers, mark them and mail them in. Same for college students spending a semester overseas, Peace Corps workers, international businessmen, etc.)
Aha, but the paper from their printers is regular paper, not the thicker cardstock paper used for ballots, the machines won’t take the paper. (Apparently there are other examples of ballots that the machines won’t take, for example absentee ballots that are folded up too much or stained, but this is a major example.)
Pretty slick, but…
So the law requires a judge to create a duplicate. The judge is supposed to write “Original-1” on the first such case in the precinct, copy the soldier’s votes onto a blank paper ballot (of the proper thickness), label that one “Duplicate-1,” feed it into the machine, and save the original in a special folder for all the originals that come into that precinct (so, in case of a recount, the duplicate can be checked against the original). Pretty slick, eh?
If, when you go to recount, the duplicates and originals all match up, everything is hunky dory. But what if, when you go to recount, there is a gap between the number of originals in the folder and the number of marked duplicates in the pile of counted ballots?
This apparently occurred in many precincts in Minnesota. Smith said that in Anoka there were at least three such precincts. And in some precincts there was a significant gap in the number of originals and duplicates (significant meaning a gap of four or five in a single precinct). What might this disparity signify and how should it be handled if your goal is to get the most accurate count? You could create several theories about how the mismatch came about.
An election worker failed to label the duplicate, or failed to make it at all, or threw away the original after making the duplicate, or something else.
Heading into this year’s recount, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie issued instructions to the counties on how to handle questions that might arise. In the matter of the duplicates, his instruction was to count the originals and set aside the duplicates. This was a new policy that Smith and Mansky said had not been followed in previous recounts.
In some precincts, this created a situation where there were more votes than voters, which probably increases the likelihood that those were cases where the duplicates were made and counted, but not labeled (and since they weren’t labeled, they couldn’t be set aside, according to the secretary of state’s instructions). That’s why the Coleman campaign is now complaining that Ritchie’s policy created the double counting of more than 100 ballots.
The Franken campaign’s reply has been that the policy was created and examined by both campaigns before the recount began. The time to raise questions about it was then, and that time has passed.
You don’t have to be super-cynical to suspect that the reason the two sides are making the arguments they are making is that the Coleman campaign believes the way the original/duplicates issue was handled ended up favoring Franken, and some of my sources have told me there is a potentially significant swing of votes if the Canvassing Board (or ultimately, the courts) decides to handle the issue differently.
(Although Rachel Smith told me that in Anoka County, “additional” ballots that were counted because of the policy netted out even between the two campaigns.)
I asked Mansky and Smith what they thought of Ritchie’s new policy. Smith said she was somewhat troubled by it. The recounters were specifically told not to examine the incident reports from the precincts that had the problems, to see whether the recounters could figure out how the problem had been created, but just to use the originals and set the duplicates aside. And they were told not to look at the machine tapes from Election Night to consider whether following the policy might cause them to have more votes than voters in a particular precinct.
Mansky said the benefit of the new policy was that it was simple and uniform and would avoid a problem of asking counties to use discretion, which could result in similar situations being treated differently in different counties.