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Franken-Coleman recount: Secretary of State Ritchie to take elections reform initiative on the road soon

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie

Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has an urgent staff meeting set for Friday. Soon after, he plans to hit the road to listen to local election officials statewide.

And, no, don’t worry, it’s not about finding or counting more votes in the U.S. Senate recount.

Not exactly.

The meeting planned for Ritchie and his key aides later this week and his barnstorming is intended to craft his office’s election reform agenda for the upcoming legislative session, which begins Tuesday.

Ritchie won’t be alone. Some DFL lawmakers are also expected to seek new ways this session to ensure that every Minnesotan’s vote counts, a goal that hasn’t been met this time ’round, what with thousands of absentee ballots rejected for a variety of reasons … some clearly unfairly.

Ritchie is hoping the issues that have surrounded the highly publicized recount — which will likely come to an end this afternoon at the State Canvassing Board — will put back on track an election reform initiative that was vetoed by Gov. Tom Pawlenty in 2007.

‘Motor-voter’ initiative could return
In that package were such measures as “motor-voter,” in which getting a driver’s license and registering to vote occur simultaneously, online registration and broadening of absentee ballots provisions.

Now, with such a close election, some counting shortcomings are clear, as are custody issues, such as the now famous 133 missing Minneapolis ballots.

Even if the Al Franken-Norm Coleman Senate election has been “so accurate and done so carefully,” as Ritchie contends, there sure has been a gaggle of troublesome issues.

For him, it’s the disenfranchisement of voters who seemed to do everything right but whose votes weren’t counted.

As much as Ritchie and others have sought to have all the votes counted in the Senate race, it’s clear that, at the very least, 419 votes weren’t counted that probably should have been.

Those were votes that the two campaigns blocked from being counted Saturday by Ritchie’s staff. The ability to halt the counting of those votes resulted from a flawed decision by the Minnesota Supreme Court last month.

In that opinion, the court required agreement between the two campaigns on ballots that election officials had approved. Statewide, 1,352 wrongfully rejected absentee ballots on Election Day were put back into the recount pool.

But by the time Ritchie’s Elections Director Gary Poser counted votes Saturday, only 933 survived. The campaigns stopped the counting of the 400-plus others. They’d clearly analyzed voting rolls and contributors and blocked votes they didn’t want counted.

Saturday, for the first time, Ritchie criticized the court for its ruling.

Handling of rejected ballots questioned
Asked if the Supreme Court’s ruling was fair, Ritchie replied, “The State Supreme Court judgments are always fair,” but he then added, “I don’t think the campaigns should have had the operating style of opposing 400 people’s ballots being counted.”

He urged the Supreme Court “to take a look at this” and see exactly how and why the campaigns rejected certain ballots.

But more than the 419, there was a total of 12,000 absentee ballots — out of about 300,000 cast — that were rejected for all sorts of reasons.

Ritchie gets downright emotional about this.

“There are 12,000 rejected ballots,” he said. “There’s hundreds that came in one day late, some from soldiers in Baghdad and Kuwait. They break my heart. But by law, they were rejected. “

And as he spoke, his eyes seemed to well up with tears. His voice cracked.

“Those 12,000 actually are my big interest in the next legislative session,” he said, “because I think those 12,000 valid Minnesota voters face a system too complicated that disenfranchised them.”

Exactly what’s on his agenda is unclear. Obviously, simplifying the absentee ballot procedures will be on the list.

“I want to listen to people,” Ritchie said, noting that election reforms are felt at the local level most, and so, his plans to visit officials across the state to seek their input and thank them for a job well done during this recount.

Other issues — the state’s staggering budget deficit, school funding, a Vikings stadium effort, bridge maintenance — all likely will get more attention.

But the recount will be a fresh memory and impetus for fixing a system — a generally good system — that still, we now know, needs some fixing.

Jay Weiner can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Spadafora Spadafora on 01/05/2009 - 12:08 pm.

    Currently, Al Franken’s margin of victory is 225 votes of nearly 3 million votes cast.

    225 is 0.0075% of 3 million. That’s one out of every 13,333 votes.

    Does anyone not think the margin of error for MN’s election system is far greater than one out of every 13,333 votes cast?

    Isn’t there an obvious need for a run-off election?

  2. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 01/06/2009 - 12:39 am.

    Tony, there is a need, even if it wasn’t mandatory-recount close, because we keep having plurality elections. Every party in the state has endorsed runoffs in the form of IRV except for the Republicans. I hope now the Republicans will get on board.

    Though I hasten to add that a runoff would guarantee only a majority winner. There could still be runoffs close enough for mandatory recounts.

  3. Submitted by Spadafora Spadafora on 01/06/2009 - 07:16 am.

    Eric, if the runoff vote totals were within 1/2% there would be an automatic recount.

    1/2% of 3 million votes would have been 15,000 votes.

    1/2% is probably a good estimate of the margin of error involved in our election system.

    I’m not sure what the margin of error for our recount system is, but I am sure it’s higher than 0.0075%.

    Franken’s absurdly slim margin of victory at this point in time should result in a runoff election if common sense prevails.

    Why would Republicans want to get away from plurality elections in a Democrat state? Do you think Pawlenty would be governor right now if Peter Hutchinson wasn’t involved in the last election.

  4. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 01/06/2009 - 10:16 pm.

    Tony, “Why would Republicans want to get away from plurality elections in a Democrat state? Do you think Pawlenty would be governor right now if Peter Hutchinson wasn’t involved in the last election.”

    I do not think Pawlenty would be governor without Hutchinson. The statistical evidence after that election was strong that Hutchinson’s support came almost wholly from Hatch. Same with Tim Penny in 2002, and maybe there would have been Governor Humphrey without Ventura in 1998, though that’s less sure. I am sure however that Tinklenberg would have won last year without the IP candidate, and Madia would have probably lost, but very narrowly.

    So your premise that Republicans have good reason to prefer plurality elections is spot on. I’m just noticing that this time, they think the election was stolen, and maybe they would have won a two way race. I still think Barkley hurt Franken more, but there were two other conservative candidates whose minuscule totals were bigger than the final margin, so many the plurality system has cost Coleman his seat. I’m hoping that this will cause Republicans to rethink IRV. Or regular runoffs. Those would be fine too.

    You’re probably right, they probably won’t. Doesn’t hurt to ask.

  5. Submitted by Bruce Anderson on 01/09/2009 - 02:33 pm.


    What evidence do have? Perhaps some exit polling from the last race for governor? It is a complete myth that Democrats are always hurt more in three-person races. Even if it was true, so what, democracy is for everyone, not just Dems and Repubs.

    Whenever a Dem, or a Repub for that matter, loses a three way race they only have themselves to blame.

    Maybe Klobby and Ellison have some secret sauce they would like to share?

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