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Looking back to another protracted Minnesota race: 1962

As election officials all over the state prepare to start recounting Minnesota’s still unresolved U.S. Senate race, political junkies are looking back to an earlier statewide recount to see what lessons it teaches us in 2008.

In 1962, Republican Gov. Elmer Andersen was locked in a tight re-election battle with his DFL challenger, Lt. Gov. Karl Rolvaag.

Andersen had been leading Rolvaag in the polls until DFL partisans charged that improprieties had occurred during the construction of a highway in Minnesota.  The Interstate 35 controversy, which broke during the final days of the campaign, appeared to narrow the gap between Andersen and Rolvaag.

When the unofficial returns were reported after the Nov. 6 election, it appeared that the campaign had ended in a virtual tie.

State Supreme Court breaks deadlock
Under state law, the canvassing board was assigned the task of declaring the winner in the gubernatorial election, but the board soon deadlocked over the issue of accepting amended returns from several counties. The deadlock was broken only after the Minnesota Supreme Court intervened and directed the board to accept the amended returns. Finally, on Nov. 29, the board declared Andersen the winner by 142 votes.

Immediately, Rolvaag petitioned the state district court for a recount, and his petition was granted. The court action set in motion a complex ballot review process that would extend into the spring of 1963.

Initially, a court-supervised process was established that authorized a panel of three district judges to oversee the ballot review. The actual recount was conducted by 100 inspection teams that each included a Republican, a DFLer and a neutral party. Since the records from precincts using voting machines had already been reviewed, the teams focused on the 800,000 hand ballots that had been cast on Nov. 6.

As the recount got under way, more than 90,000 of these ballots were challenged as being defective in one way or another. Eventually, special screening panels established by the two parties were able to winnow the number of disputed ballots down to a more manageable 1,300.

Lawyers make their case
Starting on Feb. 25, lawyers for each candidate began appearing before the three-judge panel to make their case for accepting or rejecting the remaining 1,300 ballots in dispute.  After reviewing the evidence, the district judges ruled on March 15 that Rolvaag had been elected by a margin of 91 votes.

Republican attorneys moved to dismiss the case, but they were rebuffed by the district judges, who directed the secretary of state to issue an election certificate to Rolvaag. Certain Republican leaders urged Andersen to appeal the district court ruling to the State Supreme Court, but he refused to do so.

On March 23, Andersen issued a statement saying that “a competent and fair tribunal” had rendered its judgment and that he did not see any grounds for a successful appeal.

The incumbent Republican quickly vacated his office, and Rolvaag was sworn in as the state’s 31st governor on March 25.

Andersen would go on to become one of Minnesota’s most revered elder statesmen, while Rolvaag would face substantial political difficulties during his one term as governor. He would be abandoned by his own party in 1966, when the DFL denied him its endorsement for re-election. Rolvaag staged a brief comeback when he defeated DFL-endorsed Sandy Keith in the September primary, only to lose to the Republican Harold LeVander in November.

Fast forwarding to 2008, the combatants embroiled in this year’s recount have been able to avoid some of the initial legal skirmishing that occurred 46 years ago, because the state now has an automatic recount procedure that has already been triggered.  However, if 1962 provides any historical guide, completion of a new ballot count for the Coleman-Franken race sometime next month may only be the prelude to a protected legal battle that could extend well into 2009.

Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly reported the highway that was the subject of controversy during the final days of the 1962 campaign. It was Interstate 35.

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