Recount 2.0: This time, Minn. thinks it's readyby Patrick Condon, Associated Press
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota's recount of the 2008 Senate race between Al Franken and Norm Coleman had its share of absurd moments, like the time four venerable judges and the secretary of state puzzled over whether to count a ballot with "Lizard People" scrawled across it.
That ballot drew chuckles, but it and thousands more were also subject to fiercely partisan fights that led to a grinding 47-day process before Franken came out on top. Recount 2.0, to double-check a governor's race that Democrat Mark Dayton leads by more than 8,700 votes, is expected to be much easier.
Dayton's lead over Republican Tom Emmer is far larger than the 215-vote lead Coleman held two years ago, meaning at least one side - Dayton's - might challenge fewer ballots in hopes of ending the recount sooner.
The state has changed election laws to clean up areas found to be confusing in 2008. And the political stakes - while high in Minnesota - don't matter nationally the way they did when Senate Democrats were within reach of a filibuster-proof majority.
"I think, frankly, the fact that everybody is a little more experienced at doing this, I think that means a lot in terms of seeing this all through in a calm and smooth fashion," said Joe Mansky, Ramsey County's elections manager.
A recount isn't certain until the state canvassing board meets Nov. 23 to certify the numbers, but is highly likely unless there's a major shift in the final numbers counties are reporting. Dayton's lead amounts to 0.42-percentage point, well below the half-point margin that makes recount automatic.
It would start Nov. 29 with neutral officials at one location in each county, hand-counting ballots precinct by precinct as monitors from the two campaigns watch and issue ballot challenges.
It was during this stage in 2008 that the process first bogged down, when the campaign watchdogs challenged some 6,000 ballots for what turned out to be largely trivial errors: often, stray pen or pencil swipes challenged for potentially identifying the voter in some way.
Most of those challenges were later abandoned or dismissed by the State Canvassing Board, made up of Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and a panel of Supreme Court and district judges. But that process gobbled untold hours in December 2008 with the Lizard People debate and other odd quibbles.
This time around, only names or numbers written on ballots - not random marks or slashes - will be grounds to challenge a ballot. That's one of the changes approved earlier this year by Minnesota lawmakers to eliminate recount headaches.
"What we tried to create was a system that's more barren ground for lawyers looking for ways to create uncertainty about the election," said state Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-St. Louis Park, chief House sponsor of the reforms.
Lawmakers also tightened rules for review and rejection of absentee ballots, which became a flashpoint in Coleman's lawsuit that followed the '08 recount. This year's election had only about one-fourth as many rejected absentees as in 2008, not nearly enough to help Emmer overcome Dayton's lead even if they were all somehow brought back into the count and all were Emmer votes.
Another reason this recount could hum along more efficiently: about 800,000 fewer Minnesotans voted than in the 2008 presidential year. People who cast ballots in midterm elections are considered more committed voters, more savvy with a ballot and less likely to make disqualifying mistakes.
Dayton's current lead is hefty compared to the mere hundreds of votes that separated Franken and Coleman at various points in their process. The cliffhanger quality to the '08 recount was made even more intense by the knowledge that Coleman was the last obstacle to Democrats reaching 60 Senate seats.
The stakes in 2008 were evident in the pedigree of the attorneys working for Franken and Coleman: polished national lawyers from the 2000 Bush-Gore recount in Florida and other epic recounts.
Few of that crowd will be back for the Dayton vs. Emmer recount, which depending on its length could keep Gov. Tim Pawlenty in office and aggravate tensions between Republicans and Democrats at the Capitol.
That hasn't stopped the Dayton or Emmer teams from gearing up for political combat, with both sides enlisting prominent Minnesota lawyers, lining up fundraisers and keeping the political spin flowing.
Dayton's side has emphasized the size of his current lead, while Emmer has stressed the importance of seeing a recount through and hasn't ruled out a subsequent legal challenge.
"It's frankly something we'd rather not do after each of our major elections," said Kevin Corbid, the top Washington County elections official. "But I feel like this time, we are ready."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)