Be patient, Minnesota.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie says Minnesota’s squeaky-tight U.S. Senate race will involve hundreds of people and take weeks if not months to complete.
So we could be well into 2009 before anyone knows whether incumbent Republican Norm Coleman or his Democratic challenger Al Franken won the contest.
Officials in each county will need to examine every one of the nearly 3 million ballots we cast on Tuesday.
Remember those little ovals you were supposed to darken for your choice? If your coloring job was too light or you circled the ovals rather than filled them in, the scanning machine might not have counted your ballot. That’s the kind of mistake the recounting crews will look to catch.
Their fundamental goal will be to read each voter’s intent, Ritchie said this afternoon at a news conference.
They’ll also check to see whether staffers at each of the state’s 4,130 precincts entered the results accurately into the state database.
The recount was forced by the unofficial tally of the race in which Coleman finished just 462 votes ahead of Franken, according to the Secretary of State’s latest count, which has shifted throughout the day.
State law requires an automatic manual recount of votes cast for federal and state contests in a general election when the difference between the two leading finalists is less than one-half of 1 percent of the total number of votes cast for the office. In this case, the difference is well within that gap.
Franken could have asked the state not to recount the ballots, but it’s hard to imagine why he would do that, given the stakes in the race. Indeed, he has said he will not.
Most of us remember the historic and contentious recount of Florida’s vote in the 2000 presidential election. In 2004, the initial count of a close race for governor of the state of Washington was reversed after two recounts.
Minnesota has seen recent recounts for local races, but not since 1962 have we recounted the ballots in a major statewide race. Then, DFLer Karl Rolvaag emerged the victor over Republican Gov. Elmer L. Anderson. Rolvaag won by 91 votes out of 1.3 million cast. It took well into March for all of the recounts and court challenges to be settled. And we have hundreds of thousands more ballots to scrutinize this time.
On top of the tedious recount, county attorneys would need to settle allegations of irregularities and other legal challenges before the Coleman-Franken drama is over.
The recount will begin in about two weeks after the official report of the election is presented to the State Canvassing Board. The board will then name an official to lead the process.
Recounting an election as large as this one is an elaborate enterprise involving high-stakes legal pitfalls, according to the secretary of state’s recount manual.
Among other precautions, officials will need to secure not only the ballots but also the rooms where recounting will be done. Representatives of the candidates, the press and the public are allowed to observe, but it must be done in such a way that they cannot handle the ballots and other recounting documents.
The sealed envelopes of ballots are opened and recounted by precinct. Representatives for each candidate can challenge the decisions ballot by ballot. Any challenged ballots go to the Canvassing Board. After all of them are decided, the board can certify the results.
We can expect the process to be highly contentious.
Ritchie also called it important in the long run so that the loser and his supporters trust the integrity of the process: “This is a really critical piece to the democracy.”
Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.