Recount’s next big issue: duplicate ballots

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.

Key instructions
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.

What think?

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Paul Linnee on 12/17/2008 - 12:52 pm.


    I’d be interested in your take on Larry Sabato’s suggestion (about 2/3 of the way through his piece at Rasmussen today at:

    Regarding having a “do-over” election in Minnesota.

  2. Submitted by Eric Black on 12/17/2008 - 01:50 pm.

    Thanks Paul, I’d say it’s unlikely. I could live with it, unenthusiastically. But let’s wait and see where things stand when the counting and election contests (in court) are resolved. As Sabato pointed out, it has happened only once, after the Senate itself spent months unable to resolve the 1974 New Hampshire Senate election, and then on the basis of a grand bargain agreed to by all parties. cheers,

  3. Submitted by Brian Simon on 12/17/2008 - 02:27 pm.

    “What think?”

    I think that whomever loses is certain to challenge the results in the courts. I think the people of MN will have a low tolerance for court challenges of the election results, known warts though there may be. I think what MN needs to do is look to replace the existing system, perhaps replacing the automatic recount with a run-off election when no candidate wins a plurality, as we saw happen smoothly in Georgia this year.

  4. Submitted by Eric Black on 12/17/2008 - 02:44 pm.

    Hey there Brian,
    The Georgia rule is not about a plurality but a majority. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote on election, there is a runoff. Given Minnesota’s three-party structure, this would result in a lot of runoffs. If we went to instant runoff voting, the runoff would happen at the same time as first round.

  5. Submitted by John E Iacono on 12/17/2008 - 03:32 pm.

    The way the process is SUPPOSED to work, if a ballot cannot be processed as submitted, “Original 1” is to be written on the original, and AT THE SAME TIME “Copy 1” is to be written on the copy. The copy is then fed into the machine, and the original put into an envelope.

    Even in a harried situation, it seems to me hard to picture a judge failing to mark that copy before processing it, if the rules were followed.

    I would follow this procedure:

    Take the count of the total votes cast per the register (which also shows absentee ballots cast). Subtract from it the total votes per the machine.

    If they match, then all votes, including duplicates, were cast in the machine.

    If the machine shows fewer, and the number short matches the original ballots with no duplicate found, then those originals did not get voted and should be recorded.

    If the machine shows more, then prima facie evidence of tampering is present, and the paper ballots only should be used, assuming that all duplicate ballots were cast at least once.

    If the machine shows fewer, but when the originals without duplicates found are added to it the total is more than the register voters, then it should be treated as when the machine shows more.

  6. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 12/17/2008 - 05:11 pm.

    The flaw in Ritchie’s decision is it assumes election officials followed the duplicating procedure. Unfortunately, we’ve seen already they make honest mistakes. Considering they mark the duplicates at the end of a long day, that seems like a great place for error to creep in, even with one judge watching the other make the duplicate.

    Now that I’ve written that, there could be an error copying the original, so counting that instead of the duplicate eliminates that error. Did I just write a long “never mind”?

  7. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 12/17/2008 - 05:12 pm.

    One other thing: runoffs can end up in recounts too. Therefore, they would just avoid plurarity winners, not recounts.

  8. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 12/17/2008 - 06:51 pm.

    The recount is supposed to be recounting the paper ballots. If the number of paper ballots is less than the number of voters in a precinct, there is no recount issue no matter how many votes were machine counted.

    There are other duplicate ballots: a voter spoils his ballot — as a man would — and gets a new one from the election judge. In this case, though, the second ballot is the paper ballot properly recounted.

    Secretary Ritchie is absolutely right that in the case of mailed-in ballots, duplicated to run through the machines, an error would be the judges’ and no one can tell voter intent from a duplicate.

    If the originals were destroyed, that would be a serious administrative mistake.
    But there are other issues with mailed-in ballots — such as ballots separated from the registration identifying cover envelope and counted or not counted.

  9. Submitted by Craig Huber on 12/18/2008 - 07:22 am.

    Ballots spoiled actually go into a separate folder during the election: there is a spoiled ballot folder which is utterly separate from the original/duplicate process. (We had 89 spoiled ballots and 9 duplicated ballots in our precinct, for example.)

    I’m a little unclear on where this morbid fear of “double counting” is coming from. Were there districts where the number of ballots counted in the recount exceeded the number of signatures in the register on election day, plus accepted absentee ballots? Unless the implication is that other valid ballots were discarded simultaneously, I don’t see how you could possibly double count and not exceed the election day registry signature count.

    I don’t recall seeing many instances of increased counts in the first place, and the couple I do recall were specifically double checked against register signatures… it was something I watched for as I was following the various stories. What am I missing here? Did I miss what should have been a _big_ controversy at the time?

  10. Submitted by Craig Huber on 12/18/2008 - 07:44 am.


    Ballot duplication is a pain in the derriere on Election Day, I assure you, and the opportunity for multiple types of error does certainly exists.

    Take our precinct, for example. What we did was wait until after the polls closed to deal with the absentees (which are the overwhelming majority of duplication issues). At that time, we paired off, 3 pairs of individuals, each of two different parties of course, and I handed out and tracked the ballots that needed duplication as a 4th absentee ballot handling pair discovered them while running them through the AccuVote.

    Even with that level of prep, we had one instance caught where someone forgot to number the original/duplicate pair, and one instance where the duplicate was essentially spoiled and half re-done because we had two ballots stick together in grabbing a blank to make the dup. And we were lucky: we only had 9 duplicates total, if I recall.

    (By way of explanation: it was 8:30pm, and we’d all been there since 5:30am. Definitely a long day even for us middle-age youngsters.)

    Anyway, I don’t think you wrote a long never mind. The real point is that neither the original nor the duplicate by itself is utterly authoritative in terms of reconciling voter intent and election night results. You kind of need both to be 100% sure.

    Unless there were significant variations of the recount totals from the count of register signatures, however, this idea the Coleman side is floating of “double counting” is a bit specious. Which cities/precincts ended up with more ballots than signatures+approved absentees?

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