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50 years ago: The Andersen-Rolvaag recount begins

The hand count of 800,000 ballots was prompted by an election board’s declaration that Gov. Elmer L. Andersen had received 142 more votes than Lt. Gov. Karl Rolvaag.

For days after the November election, only a handful of votes separated the Republican incumbent from his DFL challenger. Then, on Dec. 19, 50 years ago today, the vote count began again — this time at county courthouses all across the state.

Gov. Elmer L. Andersen
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Gov. Elmer L. Andersen

The laborious hand count of 800,000 paper ballots was prompted by a state election-board declaration that Gov. Elmer L. Andersen had received 142 more votes than his opponent, Lt. Gov. Karl Rolvaag, on election day, Nov. 6, 1962.

In more recent times, Minnesota has experienced two statewide recounts, one in 2008 in the U.S. Senate contest between Norm Coleman and Al Franken, and again in 2010 in the gubernatorial race between Mark Dayton and Tom Emmer. But the Andersen-Rolvaag recount, which triggered months of legal hassles, would be the first action of its kind in the state’s history.

Andersen, a progressive Republican with a deep commitment to civil rights, had been elected governor in 1960, ousting Orville Freeman, an early leader of the DFL Party, along with Hubert Humphrey. In 1960, the governor and the lieutenant governor were elected separately, so that year’s election had taken Rolvaag, a long-time DFL party loyalist, to the state Capitol along with Andersen.

In the weeks leading up to Nov. 6, 1962, the polls showed Andersen with a small lead over Rolvaag. But then DFL partisans unleashed an attack on the incumbent Republican governor, claiming that his highway department had mismanaged a key construction contract for Interstate 35W. The charges were never substantiated, but the issue damaged Anderson only a few days before the election.

‘A seesaw affair’

By Nov. 6, most observers expected the election to be close, but no one had predicted that the contest would end in a virtual tie. “As the returns slowly dribbled in on November 7 and 8, the governor’s race would become a seesaw affair,” Andersen recalled in his autobiography, “A Man’s Reach.” “First I would be ahead by a few thousand votes, then Rolvaag would jump into the lead, then I would surge ahead again.”

Karl Rolvaag
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Gov. Karl Rolvaag

In those early days after the election, the seesawing returns were strictly unofficial. The official returns would come later, when local canvassing boards met to certify the election results in their counties. The county groups, in turn, forwarded their reports to the State Canvassing Board, which declared the winners in statewide races.

The five-member state board, composed of three Republicans and two DFLers, convened on Nov. 20. The board had been expected to settle the Rolvaag-Andersen contest. Instead, the politically divided group only muddied the electoral waters by failing to agree on a course of action. The unsettled election, now the focus of competing legal briefs, was kicked up to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

After a quick review of the briefs, the court ordered the Canvassing Board to accept amended returns from 10 counties that had filed affidavits stating that their initial election reports were incorrect. With that judicial directive, the canvassing board did as it was told and declared Andersen the victor by a margin of 142 votes. But the election contest was far from being settled.

Frustration builds

In their 1964 account of the Andersen-Rolvaag battle, “Recount,” Ronald Stinnett and Charles Backstrom noted the public frustration that was building as the gubernatorial race remained unsettled weeks after the election. “The people of Minnesota by this time were getting very anxious to find out who was elected their governor,” wrote Stinnett and Backstrom. “They had been dragged through two weeks of see-saw reports, changing totals each day for each candidate.”

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In later years, Minnesota election law would be revised to provide for an automatic recount when the margin separating two candidates was less than one-half of 1 percent of the vote cast. But in 1962, that provision was not yet in effect. That year, the losing candidate, in this case Rolvaag, needed to initiate a recount if he wanted to challenge the State Canvassing Board action.

On Dec. 3, the lieutenant governor filed a legal brief, known as a Notice of Election Contest, with Judge Warren Plunkett, a DFL appointee, in Plunkett’s Freeborn County district court. By now partisan wrangling over the recount process was under way, as Andersen’s Republican lawyers moved to block action by Plunkett’s court. Once again, the Minnesota Supreme Court intervened, that time supporting Andersen’s position and halting further consideration by the Freeborn district court.

Eventually, the competing teams of attorneys, with the support of Chief Justice Oscar Knutson, came up with a plan for a statewide recount to be overseen by a three-judge panel, whose members were acceptable to both sides.

“For the first time since election day, some orderly, fair and just procedures for the recount had been pounded out by both parties,” Stinnett and Backstrom reported. “From this point on, the recount was to move as expeditiously and efficiently as possible. The fumbling, confusion, the searching, the groping, the uncertainty were beginning to cease with the creation of the three-judge panel. The Big Unknown was becoming known as the lawyers began planning and preparing the procedures for the recount.”

A painstaking process

Political cartoon appearing in the Minneapolis Star on December 21, 1962
Courtesy of Hennepin County Library
Political cartoon appearing in the Minneapolis Star on December 21, 1962

The process may have been orderly, but it was painstaking and laborious, involving three-person teams meeting throughout the state to review each of the 800,000 paper ballots. Earlier, the state’s 500,000 machine ballots had been rechecked by the county canvassing boards, so those ballots were not counted again under the new court-directed recount.

For the hand count, each team included a Republican, a DFLer, and a neutral observer. The partisan members of each team had the right to challenge a ballot if he or she believed the ballot had been improperly tallied for the opposing party.

“Progress was painstaking slow,” Andersen remembered. “Any stray mark on a ballot, any unusual symbol, any scribble that appeared to erase a first choice … was considered a reason to challenge a ballot.”

As word filtered out about the work of the ballot review teams, the unofficial lead shifted back and forth between the two candidates on almost an hourly basis. The public felt that it was being “spun up and down like a yo-yo as it waited to hear who really won the November election,” Stinnett and Backstrom observed.

Count moves into January

The hand counts extended through the end of December and into early January at county courthouses throughout the state. During this initial phase of the recount, 97,000 ballots had been challenged. Eventually, through multiple screenings, this number was reduced to just under 4,000.

In February, the recount moved back into the courts for a trial before the three-judge panel appointed by Chief Justice Knutson in December.

Eventually, the difference between the two candidates came down to 91 votes, with Rolvaag in the lead. During the early weeks of 1963, a new legislative session convened while the recount ground on. Andersen remained in office, only to see his DFL opponent inch ahead in the vote count.

“From mid-February on,” he wrote, “I was carrying on with an awareness that I likely would not be in office to see the session through to its end. … I was bracing myself for an unhappy ending.”

Final days

The end came on March 15, when the three-judge panel confirmed Rolvaag’s 91-vote lead. “My crestfallen campaign team wanted me to appeal the ruling to the state supreme court. Some of my allies in the legislature wanted me to appeal, simply to stall my departure and give them more time to sign their bills into law,” Andersen recalled.

But his attorneys counseled that an appeal was not likely to overturn the legal panel determination. “The ultimate decision was mine. For me, it could turn on only one thing: my judgment of what was best for Minnesota. The state endured four and a half months of uncertainty in state government. I could not ask Minnesotans to wait any longer for the final results,” Andersen concluded.

Now, events moved quickly. On March 21, the three-judge panel ordered that Rolvaag be named governor. Two days later, Andersen announced that he was waiving his right to appeal the panel’s decision.

On March 23, 1963, 139 days after the Nov. 6 election, Karl Rolvaag was sworn in as Minnesota’s 31st governor.