At 11:33 a.m. today, the cross-examination of Dakota County elections official Kevin Boyle continued on the third floor of the Minnesota Judicial Center.
It was part of Week Three of the ongoing Al Franken-Norm Coleman election trial.
The centerpiece issue: rejected absentee ballots.
One reason: Between 2006 and 2008, twice as many Minnesotans voted by absentee ballots, about 300,000 for the Coleman-Franken race, with about 12,000 being rejected for all sorts of reasons.
Those reasons remain at the heart of the case; how variously messed-up absentee ballots are counted or not by a three-judge panel will determine who is Minnesota’s next U.S. senator.
Fittingly – and not coincidentally – at the very same time this morning, one block west on the State Capitol campus, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie was proposing a series of major reforms to Minnesota’s election system.
Proposal arose from recount, trial experience
They are reforms borne of many of the controversies and shortcomings revealed during the painstaking Coleman-Franken recount – and now the never-ending trial.
It was as if, he said, an “electron microscope” were placed on Minnesota’s electoral system during the recount and now.
So, Ritchie toured the state during the past month listening to local elections officials. Today, at his news conference a stone’s throw from his office, Ritchie was accompanied by a half-dozen county elections chiefs from around the state, there to support him.
Key elements that Ritchie will propose to the Legislature and for which he’ll seek passage include:
• Early voting, beginning 30 days before an election, with no excuse or reason required.
You want to vote early, you can. It’s not absentee voting. No paperwork. You’re registered, you vote, and vote is counted right then and there.
Exactly where remains unclear, but probably at a county or municipal building and via a voting machine, not a hand-written absentee ballot. Many states have voting centers in places like shopping malls.
• Absentee voting via mail, as in the past, but, again, with no specific reason or excuse needed. And under his proposal, no witness would be needed to certify an absentee voter’s signature or veracity. It would be a “self-certified” absentee ballot. (Witness issues have arisen frequently in the Franken-Coleman trial.)
• Absentee ballots would be opened and counted at a central county location, not at each precinct, up to about three days before Election Day. Votes coming closer to Election Day wouldn’t be counted until Wednesday, after election officials knew who voted in person.
“How can we reduce that stress [on local election officials] that then can generate errors and problems?” Ritchie asked.
• A recount margin trigger that is lowered from one-half of a percentage point to one-quarter of a percentage point.
This wouldn’t have affected the Franken-Coleman race, with its miniscule gap of one-one-hundredth of one percent.
In the Senate case, the one-half of one percent trigger would have meant a recount if Coleman would have won by less than 14,000 votes on Election Night.
“That’s a very large number of votes, given how accurate our machines are,” Ritchie said.
Under the Ritchie proposal, that gap is reduced to 7,000 votes.
“That’s still a huge margin,” Ritchie said.
For local elections, such a reduced recount margin wouldn’t apply with turnouts smaller than 25,000.
One other matter: The recount would have to be sought by the loser; it wouldn’t be automatic. But the state would pay the cost.
• He wants the primary election pushed up earlier in the calendar year from September. He would support June or August, two months currently being discussed at the Legislature.
• His reform package doesn’t include the option of a runoff election in a case like Franken’s and Coleman’s.
One issue with a runoff: It’s far more expensive than a recount. Runoffs often have low turnout and – guess what? – runoffs can have recounts, too.
For the complete outline of Ritchie’s reform agenda, go here.
Legislative hearings are expected soon. Gov. Tim Pawlenty needs to weigh in, too, of course.
Off-year seen as best for reform
An off-cycle election year is the best time for reform, Ritchie said. That way, election officials have a year to work out glitches before a major election year, such as 2010, with a governor’s and legislative races.
If Ritchie’s reform package were in place in November of 2008, early voting would have reduced the amount of work at the precincts on Election Day, Ritchie said. And fewer absentee ballots likely would have been cast and, presumably, rejected.
In the subsequent recount, there would have likely been fewer challenges by the campaigns.
“Can you get wrongly rejecteds down? Yes,” Ritchie said of his reform proposals. “Can you get voter error down? Yes. We think this would help. It wouldn’t have changed the recount much. But it would have changed the contest.”
Despite that Senate election contest, Ritchie said elections judges statewide have told him the 2008 election “was the smoothest election in their memory. The fact it was the largest election ever and the smoothest is a very important to keep in mind. Our system is basically sound.”
Still, as the folks litigating that election contest trial a block away know, a little bit of change wouldn’t hurt.
Jay Weiner reports on sports and public policy, outdoors and the environment.