Recount begins at county levelby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio,
Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
Election officials throughout Minnesota have begun recounting nearly three million ballots to determine who won the U.S. Senate race. As local officials hand count those ballots, representatives from the campaigns of Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and DFLer Al Franken are closely watching, ready to challenge any decisions they disagree with.
Center City, Minn. — The 29,411 ballots cast in Chisago County will be recounted in a large meeting room in the lower level of the government center in Center City.
County auditor Dennis Freed is the chief election official and he's in charge of the recount.
Freed said they will have three tables with six volunteers that will start the recount under his supervision at 9:00 a.m. Freed said it's not complicated work, just tedious.
"We're going to open up the container, take the ballots out. The teams will then start arranging those ballots so they are in the same orientation. So in other words, tops is up and the Senate race is on the top," said Freed. "Then one member of the team will begin the process of sorting those ballots, so there will be a pile for Coleman, a pile for Franken and then a pile for everyone else. So once the sorting is done, then they're going to do a hand count of those ballots for that precinct."
The recount is open to anyone who wants to watch. Freed said the campaigns of Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken have been in touch with his office. He's expecting each will have representatives in the room ready to challenge any ballot decisions they might disagree with.
For now, the Chisago County ballots are in sealed, bright blue plastic tubs in Freed's office. He said they've been there under lock and key since the machine count on Election Night two weeks ago.
Chisago County election judges Cheryl Jelinek and Garry Wordelman are not involved in the recount, but they worked together on Election Day. Both are proud of what they did to assist a large number of voters.
Jelilnek and Wordelman expect the numbers will change, but not because anything unscrupulous had been going on. Instead, both agree the hand recount will catch errors voters made that the machines can't see.
"We're humans, and humans make mistakes," Jelinek said.
"We had people voting that were from 18 years old to one woman I know was 102," Jelinek said. "Some people can't see, some people can't understand the whole process. I had some first-time voters who just got their citizenship."
Other counties have already found mistakes. A voter in South St. Paul, Precinct 4, Ward 2 has become an example for elections officials in Dakota County. That's because the ballot includes marks for both Norm Coleman and Al Franken.
"The ovals were filled in for two candidates. But what we have is the voter expressing intent next to one of those candidates by saying 'No,'" said Joel Beckman, director of Property Records and Taxation with Dakota County.
He said his office found the ballot when they were doing their audits of precincts after the election. State law requires elections officials across the state to randomly conduct the audits on several precincts to check the accuracy of voting machines.
"During our post-election review we looked at over 15,000 opportunities for ballot errors such as this. And out of those 15,000 opportunities, this is the only one we saw," Beckman said.
Beckman said the optical scanning machine would have disregarded the ballot because ovals were filled in for both Franken and Coleman. But he said elections officials counted the ballot as a vote for Franken because the voter wrote "no" next to Coleman's name.
"He indicated that he did not intend to vote for Coleman so we would have adjusted the vote total for Franken," Beckman said. "In the course of the recount, if this is found, normally what would happen is that one of the two campaigns would challenge it and we would send it to the state canvassing board to determine voter intent."
Voter intent could play a big factor in deciding the winner in the Senate race. State law says ballots should be counted if it's clear what the voter meant to do. In other words, ballots should be counted if voters circled a candidate's name, marked a check next to a name or didn't fill in the bubble properly.
Of course, the big recount question is whether the results of the hand count will differ from the machine tally.
Chisago County Auditor Dennis Freed said, based on the results of the required post-election review his office conducted last week, he thinks it's unlikely anything dramatic will happen in his county.
In that audit, Freed's office hand counted the results of three races in two precincts. It was a standard post-election review unrelated to the recount.
Out of the nearly 3,000 ballots examined -- about 10 percent of the total number -- just two more votes were added to presidential candidates, and five incorrectly marked write-ins were fixed.
But, in a race as close as Minnesota's Senate contest, even small changes from a small percentage of the state's more than 4,000 precincts could determine the outcome.
Freed is predicting the Chisago County recount will be done by Friday, possibly even by Thursday.
- Morning Edition, 11/19/2008, 7:20 a.m.
Mark Zdechlik covers politics for MPR News.