Another statewide recount puts Minnesota politicos back in familiar territory

Nov 29 2010

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

SAINT PAUL, Minnesota: That Minnesota’s gubernatorial contest would require a recount was obvious several weeks ago, but state law mandated both that the canvassing board meet and that a court officially call for a recount. Shortly after the November 2nd elections, with all precincts reporting, Democrat Mark Dayton was leading the GOP’s Tom Emmer by just over 9,000 votes, a margin all but certain to trigger Minnesota’s Constitutional requirement for a recount when the difference in votes is under 0.5%.

By the time the state’s canvassing board convened on the 23rd of the month, Dayton’s edge was down to 8,770 and the recount was assured. What followed were intensive meetings to hash out the rules of the recount. [1]

Perhaps nursing bad memories from the protracted 2008 Senatorial recount that saw Democrat Al Franken declare victory after eight months of wrangling, state Republicans weren’t waiting for the recount to begin fighting. The party brought the first legal challenge two weeks after the election, with allegations of lax adherance to procedure at the polls. On Election Night, metropolitan Hennepin County, home of Minneapolis, initially reported total votes that were 25% higher than the county’s entire roll of registered voters.

While that gaffe was corrected and shaved a large chunk off Dayton’s numbers, Emmer and his backers claim similar mishaps were widespread in the state and urged a judge to order the Secretary of State, Democrat Mark Ritchie, to reconcile ballots cast with voter sign-in rolls on a precinct-by-precinct basis. The bid brought derision from Dayton’s supporters and ultimately failed. [2]

This morning, both sides will turn their full attention to a hand recount of 2.1 million ballots. Recounting is being done across the state, rather than in one location, with volunteers handling the ballots and partisan observers representing both campaigns and both major parties observing. Ballots that are ‘challenged’ by an observer are set aside and transported by courier to the five-member State Canvassing Board, which makes final decisions.

Under Minnesota’s law, ‘automatic and frivolous’ challenges are illegal, a law bolstered after the 2008 recount debacle with newly added powers that allow local authorities some discretion is deeming a challenge to be frivolous. The observer challenging any given ballot must cite a reason and sign next to the stated cause for singling out the ballot.[3]

If the recount stays on schedule, all ballots will be hand counted by December 7th and the canvassing board will address challenged ballots in time to make a December 14th certification. Even then, either Dayton or Emmer could legally challenge to board’s decision. Such a lawsuit would likely come from the Republican, who is behind right now and whose chances at making up the difference is considered highly unlikely.

The 2008 Senate contest between Norm Coleman and Al Franken took only 47 days for the recount to be concluded; it was the arduous legal challenges that consumed another six months. Legal changes since then are designed to prevent such a protracted battle.[4]

Republicans control both houses of Minnesota’s legislature following the midterms and would have a trifecta if Emmer could prevail. If the expected mid-December certification leads to a lawsuit, outgoing Governor Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, will not leave office on January 3, 2011. In such an eventuality, Pawlenty will remain as sitting Governor with full powers until the election is resolved.