Recount: the prolonged process

The process is set to begin Nov. 29, but a possible lawsuit could drag it on indefinitely.

James Nord

As Election Night wore on, the inevitability of a recount in MinnesotaâÄôs gubernatorial race became clear.

In the following week, DFL candidate Mark DaytonâÄôs lead over his opponent Tom Emmer slipped by a small margin to 8,755, less than one-half of 1 percent, the threshold for an automatic recount.

While county canvassers undertook the mammoth task of re-checking the roughly 2.2 million ballots cast, both candidates pledged to let the recount run its course.

But results have to be certified by the State Canvassing Board before they become official and a recount is triggered.

On Election Day, more than 20,000 volunteers âÄî 5,000 in Hennepin County alone âÄî at 4,000 locations statewide worked to ensure voters were given a voice. Now, election officials will make certain the peopleâÄôs voice is accurately heard.

HereâÄôs a look at how the recount will progress, as outlined by the Secretary of State:

Now

Beginning shortly after the election, county canvassing boards have been comparing the number of ballots cast to the number of voters who attended in each precinct. In Hennepin County, officials found six discrepancies out of 468,000 votes and rectified the difference.

Vote totals submitted to the Secretary of StateâÄôs office on Election Night are also verified to ensure accuracy, government relations director Beth
Fraser said.

“ThereâÄôs no way on Election Night we can be 100 percent certain everything transmitted from the precinct at nine oâÄôclock is perfect,” Rachel Smith, the Hennepin County election manger, said.

Eventually, after the ballot totals are checked, the county canvassing boards write a report that is submitted to the Secretary of StateâÄôs office, which creates a statewide report to be submitted to the State Canvassing Board.

Nov. 23

The State Canvassing Board is made up of two Minnesota Supreme court justices, including David Stras, a former University of Minnesota law professor, and two district court judges. ItâÄôs chaired by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

The board reviews the Secretary of StateâÄôs report and certifies the election results, making them “official.” If the margin between two candidates remains less than one-half of 1 percent of the total vote, a recount is declared and the board approves a recount plan.

But thereâÄôs some debate over how high the margin should be. Ramsey County election manager Joe Mansky said the margin is much too high.

“That margin needs to go down to more responsibly reflect the kinds of recounts that should be done at public expense,” he said.

Nov. 29

The recount begins. At one location per county, election officials hand count ballots precinct-by-precinct, dividing them into piles for each candidate. They also create a third pile for those who have conceded or for ballots not involving a candidate in the contested race. Partisan representatives are allowed to be present to challenge an election officialâÄôs decision about whom each ballot was cast for.

Dec. 7

Election officials must finish sorting ballots in about one week. They are also required to submit all ballots challenged by candidate representatives to the Secretary of StateâÄôs office for safekeeping before the State Canvassing Board meets the following day. In Hennepin County alone, 468,000 ballots will have been recounted by hand at the Government Center.

Dec. 8 to 10

The State Canvassing Board meets to make decisions concerning the fate of challenged ballots and certify contested Minnesota House races results.

Dec. 14

From Dec. 10 to 14, the Secretary of StateâÄôs office will put together a report including the final gubernatorial recount numbers and the boardâÄôs determination on challenged ballot totals.

If all goes well, the roughly two-week recount will reach a ceremonial conclusion and the Board will certify the gubernatorial recount results.

Beyond

The losing candidate has the option to file a lawsuit, or an “election contest,” within a week of the boardâÄôs decision. A three-judge panel must hear arguments within 20 days of the filing, but the trial can last much longer.

Barring an upset victory, Emmer may file a lawsuit, likely citing the 3,000 rejected absentee ballots as an issue.

But Fritz Knaak, attorney for Norm ColemanâÄôs 2008 Senate recount, is convinced Emmer wouldnâÄôt go to that length, although he said hard feelings from the 2008 recount remain in the Republican Party.

“Bottom line is Republicans are still feeling pretty âÄòouchieâÄô about the last one,” he said.

David Lillehaug, an attorney for the Dayton recount team, proposed a doomsday scenario for DFLers in which Republicans dragged out the recount process to allow Gov. Tim Pawlenty to stay past his current term.

Though Pawlenty has said heâÄôd stay in office as long as necessary, he and Republican legislative leadership have denied any intention to use the situation to ram through legislation before a new governor is chosen.

Knaak dismissed the fear as well.

“ThereâÄôs just too much of a downside, even for Republicans, to drag this thing on, and on, and on and on,” he said.

Depending on the outcome of each stage of the election contest, the lawsuit could ultimately make it to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The 2008 Senate recount stretched on for about eight months.

How it will differ from 2008:

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, expects the recount to be easier this time around.

Winkler, who authored legislation to streamline MinnesotaâÄôs voting system after 2008, said new rules governing absentee balloting will make a world of difference.

The laws have changed in “some small but significant ways,” election manager Mansky said.

Now absentee ballots are counted by professionals in a centralized location instead of by volunteer election judges in each precinct. The process of identifying an absentee voter has also been streamlined to require use of an identification number instead of a signature, saving judges the trouble of comparing signatures.

Administrative changes from the Secretary of StateâÄôs office will also make a big difference.

Thousands of contested ballots in the 2008 recount slowed the process to a near standstill. Partisan representatives questioned in record numbers stray pen marks and incorrectly written-in candidates.

New rules simplify the process for determining if ballots are “identified,” or marked in a way that shows an election judge specific voters cast their ballots for a predetermined candidate, which should significantly trim the number of contested ballots.

“Hand counting the ballots is not all that time consuming,” Smith said. “What became very time consuming in the 2008 recount was the challenges and weâÄôre hoping that will be resolved.”