In the end, as if by magic, 24 people from across Minnesota who’d never met until six weeks ago came to broad — often unanimous — agreement on a series of practical recommendations to help fix election recounts.
On such a complex topic that held Minnesota’s political system hostage for eight months, how’d they so often come to 24-0 and 23-1 votes?
“You should have heard us talking,” said Ernest Swinson, a retired teacher. “We squabbled this up one side and squabbled down the other side. We hammered it out.”
Good, solid, civil consensus, that’s how they did it.
70 hours’ work over nine days
It took them more than 70 hours during nine days over three weekends of hearing testimony and then deliberating. On Saturday, the Citizens Jury on Election Recounts released a 31-page report urging some fundamental, and even novel, changes in Minnesota’s recount system.
The entire report is here (PDF) for you to read, but a few notable highlights:
• After hearing from county election officials about the behavior of political party representatives during the Al Franken-Norm Coleman U.S. Senate recount, the jury recommended “concise procedures and ground rules regarding the behavior” of candidates’ reps.
The members added, “We want to introduce a level of civility into the election recount process.”
Said juror Susanna Styve: “We were really dismayed at the lack of civility that we heard about from election officials … the political gamesmanship. I think we were all pretty upset by the political parties” at the challenging phase of ballots, she said.
Some party reps at recount locations were aggressive towards election judges, jurors said.
When the jury met with representatives of the political parties, Styve said it was “amazing” how “unabashed they were. They told us, ‘We train our people to be pit bulls,” during the recount period. “We felt the campaign process ends when the election is held. It should.”
Through all the proposals before the Legislature in 2009 — many passed, but all vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty — this notion of a code of conduct for party representatives and election officials alike was never suggested.
• As for absentee ballots, the jury recommended self-certification — that is, no need to have a witness or signature match, two points of contention during the Franken-Coleman election trial court.
• The jury rejected the notion of awarding a provisional election certificate to a candidate who won a recount, but whose victory is held up in court during a contest.
“We felt it was more important to wait until a real winner was confirmed,” said juror Brad Riebel, 48, a bank loan officer from Bloomington. Jurors were concerned about the mechanics of a provisional U.S. senator being in office, only to be removed if a contest overturned the recount.
• The jury suggested some form of early voting but didn’t offer specifics; early voting would reduce absentee balloting and make it easier for voters to cast ballots in a voting machine at an official location.
• The jury called for earlier primary elections in the state — no date specified – to improve timing for the distribution of absentee ballots — particularly for military members overseas — and in the case of an — egads! — prolonged primary election recount.
The earlier-primary issue has been of great dispute in the Legislature.
• Embracing a recommendation from former Anoka County elections manager Rachel Smith, the jury recommended a so-called “formal standardized review process” that would allow local election officials adequate time between Election Day and the start of a recount to better examine voting records, resolve missing ballots issues and fix mistakes.
There was a sense that current law forced local election managers to seal and shut down their election machines, ballot boxes and records too quickly. In Smith’s case, for instance, some Anoka County ballots were discovered in February during the Franken-Coleman recount trial; had she and her staff had more time in November to thoroughly search and review all their materials, that late ballot discovery could have been avoided.
“I think a review like this would have nipped in the bud some of the problems that went on to the contest phase,” said Styve, 34, a tennis coach from Mendota Heights.
Citizens Jury heard from 23 witnesses
The recommendations and conclusions came after the jury heard from 23 witnesses, including Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague; Judge Kathleen Gearin, a member of the State Canvassing Board; Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and representatives of the DFL, Republican and Independence parties.
Brod, with Ritchie, was a sponsor of the jury. She released a statement Saturday that said: “When citizens engage in a meaningful way we win, our system wins and overall we get better results due to the varied perspectives being at the table together to move an idea forward.”
There’s the rub. Exactly what becomes of these recommendations is unclear. Some dovetail with reforms that Ritchie has been seeking since he took office in 2006. Others build on legislation that passed this year but Pawlenty vetoed.
“I think what we’ve done is a good healthy addition to the debate and controversy,” said Swinson, 65, of Minneapolis. “It’s input from lots of people who didn’t expect to agree on what they could have for dinner but came to agreement on this.”
After completing their work, the jury was invited to meet with the Voter Participation Committee of the National Association of Secretaries of State; the association conducted its summer convention at the Hilton Minneapolis over the weekend, the same venue where the jury met off-and-on since June. Ritchie is the co-chair of the committee.
After Riebel and Swinson outlined the jury’s findings to about 20 secretaries of state and after a couple of other jurors explained their recommendations, an odd thing occurred.
When the presentations were over, the secretaries from a score of states rose in the hotel ballroom and applauded the jury, whose recommendations are now there for the taking by policy makers and other citizens to consider.
Said Riebel: “We hope there are people listening, and expect and hope that they might take some action and take our recommendations to heart.”
For a closer look at the jury and some of the deliberations, go to the Citizens Jury website.
Jay Weiner can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.