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The Twin Cities Throwdown

This column was written by John McCormack.

Last Wednesday, campaign volunteers for Democratic candidate and comedian Al Franken were huddled outside of the Ramsey County office building. They had just finished their first day monitoring the recount in the Senate race between Republican senator Norm Coleman and Franken. "This isn't Florida!" a cheerful Frankenite chimed in toward the end of the rap session, eliciting a few laughs from her comrades standing outside in the freezing weather.

Throughout the day, eight election judges, each flanked by a Coleman and a Franken representative, sorted white paper ballots that look like standardized test sheets with a blank oval next to each candidate's name. In one pile, they placed votes clearly marked for Franken. In another, those clearly for Coleman. A third was for other Senate candidates or no discernible vote, and a fourth was for ballots challenged by a campaign representative. (The state's canvassing board will determine who, if anyone, gets these votes.) By day's end 40,000 of 278,000 ballots cast in the county had been recounted, and Franken had netted 10 votes. Only 13 were challenged, and both campaigns thought the process was going smoothly.

This display of "Minnesota nice" was a respite from what has otherwise been the nastiest Senate campaign of this cycle. For months, Franken attacked Coleman for taking gifts from lobbyists and being George Bush's lackey. Coleman blasted Franken back for failing to pay his taxes, for making rape jokes as a comedian, and for writing "Porn-o-Rama!"--an article for Playboy that read more like, well, porn than Swiftian satire. Almost 3 million votes were cast on Election Day, and when results were formally certified, Coleman led by just 215 votes. The GOP's ability to filibuster hinges on the uncertain outcome of this recount and the December 2 runoff in Georgia.

As we went to press, 64 percent of the ballots had been recounted, and Coleman's lead over Franken had dwindled from 215 to 120. Franken is so far gaining as election officials catch votes that the voting machines missed, but, "there could very likely be some counting errors here as well," says Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky. Hand-counting, which is required by state law in a recount, is "frankly not as accurate" as machine counting, he says. If an election official places a ballot in the wrong pile or accidentally counts 99 ballots as 100, that error will be part of the final tally unless one of the campaign representatives catches the mistake. There are no third chances. There's also no way to tell if human error is breaking in favor of one candidate.

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The recount must be completed by December 5 and the canvassing board will begin examining the challenged ballots and issuing final rulings on December 16. (So far, the Coleman and Franken campaigns have challenged 734 ballots, with an almost equal number challenged by each campaign.) The board has two state Supreme Court justices (both appointed by Republican governor Tim Pawlenty), two district court judges (who lean to the left), and Minnesota's secretary of state (a Democrat).

The canvassing board's recount of the challenged ballots is intended to be transparent--scanned images of the ballots may be viewed by the public--but Republicans are alleging that Secretary of State Mark Ritchie is fiercely partisan and won't be a fair arbiter of the process. Ritchie didn't help matters when he was asked by a television reporter about the Coleman campaign's criticism of election officials and replied, "Their goal is to win at any price."

In an interview in Ritchie's office on the first day of the recount, I asked him if he feels the Franken campaign is also trying to win at any price. "Yeah," he said. "All campaigns take this as a very serious matter. All campaigns do this to win for their candidate, and my job is to determine what the citizens wanted." Asked if there are specific examples of the Franken campaign's promoting distortions, Ritchie pointed to their false claim that an elderly woman's absentee ballot was denied because she had a stroke and her signature on the ballot didn't match the one on file. The county auditor told a local newspaper that the county "does not have one ballot that was rejected because signatures didn't match....The Franken campaign was clearly told that."

While the Coleman campaign hasn't pushed any such clear falsehoods, some of their complaints about the integrity of the vote count are unfounded. For example, Coleman's lead shrunk from 725 votes the morning after the election all the way down to 215 votes when the results were certified after county election officials rechecked their unofficial vote totals for errors. Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan attributed the narrowing vote gap to "statistically dubious and improbable shifts." And a Wall Street Journal editorial declared it odd that in one liberal precinct in the town of Two Harbors "Franken picked up an additional 246 votes. In Partridge Township, he racked up another 100."

But in the Two Harbors precinct, the vote tally in the presidential race was 336 for Barack Obama and 175 for John McCain. Norm Coleman's total was 175, and the count for the independent candidate Dean Barkley was 74. Without the correction, Franken's tally would have been 27 votes--unbelievably low for a Democratic precinct. The original numbers in Partridge Township were also obviously a result of error. Though suspicions were raised before Election Day when it was reported that the leftwing advocacy group ACORN had registered 43,000 new voters in Minnesota, no evidence of serious voting irregularities has yet emerged anywhere in the state.

Not that this has deterred the Franken campaign from angling to take the race to the courts. They are already petitioning the state canvassing board to include rejected absentee ballots in its final count, to which--surprise!--the Coleman campaign strongly objects. Franken campaign attorney Marc Elias said that failing to include the rejected absentee ballots "would be a problem under Minnesota state law and under the United States Constitution." In the end, if the Coleman-Franken race turns into a hard fought legal battle, Minnesota could end up looking a lot like Florida. Except this time, members of the U.S. Senate--controlled by 58 Democrats--would have the final authority to seat either candidate.

If it comes to that, the world's greatest deliberative body would do well to act like the Democrats and Republicans gathered in the Ramsey County office building at the end of the first day's recount. The elections manager laid the 13 challenged ballots on a table before top representatives from each campaign. Even if the oval next to the name of only one candidate wasn't perfectly filled in, the voter's intent was clear on 12 of them (7 for Franken, 5 for Coleman). On one, a voter used checkmarks; on others a dot was placed in one candidate's oval and the other was completely filled in. The Coleman and Franken campaign representatives agreed it was a wash and withdrew all 12 challenges to keep the state canvassing board from having to waste its time looking at frivolous challenges.
By John McCormack
Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard

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