Minnesota: Five 9s of Success
I’d like to set the record straight on Minnesota’s handling of their November 2008 close election for U.S. Senate. It’s not a debacle, it’s a miracle. And it’s no longer a recount, it’s a series of court cases.
To say a bit more, Minnesota’s office of Secretary of State, working in remarkably effective collaboration with the county elections boards, has conducted a recount of exemplary care and public transparency. When I say it is a 99.999% success I mean that with much effort and time, the counties and state were able to re-examine each of nearly two and half million paper ballots’ votes for U.S. Senate, in a way where only a few hundred ballots were the point of disagreement by anyone at all, including Franken’s lawyers and Coleman’s lawyers. And after a lot of back-and-forth over these few hundred ballots, there were 14 over which there remained some real difficulty in agreeing on an interpretation.
I call that amazing, either in terms of the amount of care required for tracking and handling the paper ballots, or the grueling efforts of the election officials. The very fact that there are still arguments of counting of duplicate ballots, or about 132 ballots that were recorded but can’t located, is enabled by meticulous recording keeping over the 5 months and millions of ballots.
Now, here’s what remains, which by the way is what caused the controversy in the first place: "absentee ballots" or vote-by-mail (VBM) ballots. Each county has slightly different rules for determining whether a VBM ballots is valid, based on the information on the enclosing envelope. When one of the candidate’s lawyers says that some VBM ballots "should be counted" they are expressing an opinion. The fact is that not every VBM ballot should be counted, because some are invalid. The counties and the state have have gone over these again and again, and formed their opinion that all the uncounted VBM ballots should remain unopened and uncounted, based on the validity rules that they’ve used. Leaving those aside, every ballot has been counted and the remaining irreconcilable interpretations are far smaller than the margin of victory.
So really what remains is legal dispute about the rules for admitting or rejection absentee ballots, and that will go on and on until the U.S. Supreme Court declines or hears a case. The recount is over.
The Minnesota recount experience wasn’t pretty or fun, but it was far from a disaster. In fact it was a great lesson for how to do a hard job quite well. I recently heard Minnesota’s Secretary of State Mark Ritchie talk about the lessons learned, and what they can do better in future; no doubt true that there is room for improvement, but at this point there should be no doubt: Minnesota’s election system is exemplary, including that spirit of learning and improvement.