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Lights, camera, Senate recount: National and local media ‘brighten’ Minneapolis vote-tabulation scene

By Marisa Helms | Wednesday, Nov.

Gathered in a cold warehouse, bundled-up observers watch intently as an election judge prepares Minneapolis ballots for the recount.
MinnPost photo by Marisa Helms
Gathered in a cold warehouse, bundled-up observers watch intently as an election judge prepares Minneapolis ballots for the recount.

At times today, it seemed the Senate vote recount in a Northeast Minneapolis warehouse had more media — both local and national — on hand than election judges and campaign observers.

It kind of resembled a film studio, with TV cameras (including Fox and CNN), bright lights and cables snaking along the floor and, on occasion, tripping up the unwitting passer-by.

Cindy Reichert, Minneapolis director of elections, patiently directed the scene.

Reichert told judges to pair up and set up at six small tables organized in a U shape in the center of the room.

At each table sat two election judges and one representative each from the Norm Coleman and Al Franken campaigns. Hovering around them were volunteer observers from both campaigns.

The process started off with the most menial of tasks, arranging each ballot to make sure they were all facing the same direction.

In Minneapolis alone, there are 13 wards, 131 precincts, and 207,000 ballots to count.

Reichert says it will take, on average, about three hours to get through each of the precincts (the recount center also will count the Fort Snelling precinct with only 100 votes). Reichert expects her recount to take five or six days.

Throughout the morning, Reichert dealt with mostly minor procedural questions.

“I think the biggest issue has been — sorry — the media,” said Reichert. “There’s so many cameras, it’s difficult for the observers to see. It might be a little disconcerting for the election judges. However, they are all seasoned judges, and I think they are all pretty comfortable with what’s going on today.”

Shortly after Reichert’s comment, an observer summoned her to a table to ask whether both sides of the ballot should be looked at before being shuttled off to the Franken or Colemen pile.

The concern is that if a voter put any kind of identifying mark on it or signed it with their name, etc., then the ballot would be invalidated.

Lawyers from both sides huddled in groups to confer, and a short while later, a new rule was made. Reichert announced that the judges would have to start over and examine both sides of the ballot before it could be counted. Luckily, the recount was only an hour old, and each table was still working through its first precinct.

And so it went throughout the morning, each ballot sorted for the respective candidate. Questionable ballots received a sticky note with a question mark and were put at the bottom of the pile, to be resolved before the final counting for each candidate.

As the morning wore on, the warehouse, with its stark white walls and high ceilings, grew quiet but stayed fairly cold. With no heat in the building, people kept on their coats, hats and scarves.

Reichert says she wants to stop counting each day by about 4:30 p.m. The judges, who start at 9 a.m., will work Thursday and Friday, come back Monday and Tuesday and then return after the holiday on Monday, Dec. 1, to finish up.

Aside from the small area carved out for the recount, the warehouse is filled with election equipment. Row upon row of blue voting booths are folded up for storage, and voting machines and tabulators — big black boxes with metal suitcases on top — are lined up directly behind the election judges and observers.

A white tape line outlines each of the counting tables. Observers and media are not allowed to cross the line or talk to the judges without permission.

Even the observers and lawyers have been instructed by their respective campaigns to not talk to the media. But Minneapolis lawyer Bill Starr, who is volunteering for the Franken campaign, was willing to say a few words. He said he thinks Franken will prevail. His hunch is based on a theory he has.

“People who voted for Coleman are more likely to have taken the SAT in their lifetime,” he said. “They’ve filled in circles. Franken voters are probably not college-educated. They’re new voters and immigrants. They’ve been brought in by groups like ACORN, from the inner cities. They’re more likely to make mistakes. I’ve bounced this off of minority people, and they agree with me.”

Apparently, other recount locations did not have the media presence of Minneapolis. That, in part, lured the party chairs to the Northeast warehouse.

DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez stopped by late in the morning and said he thought the recount was going as well as can be expected.

“We’re watching very closely,” said Melendez. “Each campaign is watching with an eagle eye [that] every single ballot that gets counted. The public and the media are here watching.  This is a completely transparent process, and I believe it’s going to be done right.”

At the time, Melendez did not know (or didn’t say) that a judge would rule in Franken’s favor in his lawsuit to obtain voter information on rejected absentee ballots. But he reiterated the campaign’s concerns driving the lawsuit.

“We have been hearing stories about voters properly casting absentee ballots but then [having them] rejected for improper reasons,” said Melendez. “The Franken campaign wants to know why that occurred. In a race this close, every vote matters, and we want to track down every vote properly cast.”

Not long after Melendez left the warehouse, Minnesota’s Republican Party Chair Ron Carey showed up, apparently at the request of Fox News. He said he was taking a “Reagan-esque” approach to the recount.

“Trust but verify,” Carey said. “Trust that we have a good process in Minnesota but obviously, we’re here to verify if the process is being fulfilled. If it’s followed through throughout the state, I’m confident this recount going to confirm again that Norm Coleman is going back to the United States Senate.”

Carey added the Franken campaign’s lawsuit is a “Hail Mary pass.” He said he’s worried the Franken campaign is trying to create a “specter of doubt that this process is fair,” But, he concluded, “it would be hard for the Franken campaign to make the case this hasn’t been done right.”

Marisa Helms can be reached at mhelms [at] minnpost [dot] com.