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Lessons from the recount: Officials look for silver lining

In upbeat Minnesota fashion, state officials have said some good lessons could come from the headaches of having to recount the nearly 3 million votes cast in the state’s U.S. Senate race.

Indeed, lessons are emerging even before the recount turns into a critical phase next week when the State Canvassing Board is to rule on contested ballots. They range from the handling of absentee-ballots to the recount process to gaps in state election law.

Absentee ballots
Minnesota needs to revamp the error-laden process for casting and counting absentee ballots, Joe Mansky, Ramsey County’s Elections Manager said at a forum presented Wednesday by the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

Whether or not the state intended or sanctioned early voting, it clearly has come to Minnesota through the absentee ballot process used by some 288,000 voters this year, Mansky said.

Nearly 12,000 of those absentee votes were rejected by election officials for allegedly violating voting rules, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said at the forum. Whether or not those rejections should be reviewed is one of the flash points in the recount battle. Ritchie estimated that 9 or 10 percent of them were in error.

Whatever the outcome of the absentee-ballot battle in the Senate race, Mansky said the rejection rate is too high and the state should:

• Create a Website where absentees could learn whether they are eligible to vote, whether their ballots were received and whether there were any problems.

• Acknowledge that early voting has arrived and make it more accessible by setting up early-voting facilities at “Cub Foods, Target …  where the people are.”

• Set up ballot counting machines in government buildings so that instead of wrestling with a “maze of envelopes” early voters could fill in their ballots and feed them to the counter just as others do on Election Day.

• Relieve local election judges of the duties of counting the absentee ballots on top of everything else they have to do.

Of about 100 improperly rejected absentee ballots in Ramsey County this year, two of the errors were made by office staffers before the votes were counted and all of the rest were made by election judges, Mansky said.

“They are overworked on Election Day,” Mansky said. “We need to put them in a position to succeed and the way to do that is to never send them the absentee ballots.”

Some counties have reviewed their rejected absentee ballots even though state law is murky on how they should be handled. Others have taken the position that voters can go to court to challenge rejections, Ritchie said. He called the court option unacceptable, especially for soldiers and Marines who are stationed overseas.

“I’m supposed to tell a soldier in Baghdad, ‘Get yourself a lawyer and sue Ramsey County?'” he asked.

The recount
The recount process also could be streamlined, speakers said at the forum.

Campaigns for incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and his Democratic challenger Al Franken have challenged more than 6,000 ballots during the recount. While both sides have withdrawn some of their challenges, 4,000 to 5,000 are left to be reviewed by the Canvassing Board, Ritchie said.

Local officials should be empowered to reject frivolous challenges during a recount, Mansky said. “I saw every challenged ballot in Ramsey County, and 90 percent were frivolous,” or the intent of the voter was obvious, he said.

Mansky also questioned whether the recount process is appropriate for a high-stakes statewide election. The automatic recount law was designed for legislative races, not statewide contests, he said, and the courts may be a better venue for settling questions about bigger races. Courts have ruled in close races for at least two congressional seats in recent years.

State election law
Minnesota sets the gold standard for the nation in its administration of elections, said Edward Foley, who directs an election law program for Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.

“Imagine if this [recount] was occurring in Illinois,” Foley quipped on the day after the Illinois governor was arrested for alleged corruption.

Even so, “Minnesota might have done some things differently,” Foley said.

The state should audit its election code, he said, “looking for gaps and holes that stress the system,”

If the election law “had spelled out in black and white what to do” in situations like the 133 ballots that went missing in Minneapolis, Foley said, there would have been less room for controversy.

Overall, Foley said, the state should look for ways to minimize mistakes that lead to lost ballots and rejected absentee ballots.

“Five percent of absentee ballots rejected is pretty high,” he said.

Mansky said the last major revamping of Minnesota’s election law was in 1988. Since then, it’s become increasingly difficult to push through legislation related to sensitive election issues.

“Politics have become more contentious,” he said. “It’s harder to bring people together.”

If there is any chance for meaningful change, it would have to pass in a non-election year, Ritchie said.

Asked when the recount of the Senate race will be finished, Ritchie said we will know how Minnesota voted Dec. 19 when the Canvassing Board expects to finish reviewing the challenged ballots.

That is not to say Minnesotans will know who won the seat before all chances of court battles are resolved.

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