Sunday, November 9, 2008

Knock, Knock . . .

Who's there?
"Senator" who?
Don't ask me. I'm from Minnesota.

Thus I recall a variation on a joke making the rounds in Minnesota when I was 10 years old and the outcome of the gubernatorial race between Karl Rolvaag and Elmer L. Andersen was not determined for 4 months. The fact that this gem of political humor remains with me 46 years later is probably a testament to how deeply emotions ran in the otherwise politically idyllic period in American history often referred to as Camelot.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether this State, or any State, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all ballots are created equal, can, for a few more weeks, endure.

Sorry. I guess I long for political peace and the remaining rancor brings to mind the wisdom of past great leaders.

I spent election night 2008 in St. Paul at the DFL headquarters hotel. After spending more time and money than in any previous election since taking a leave from my U.S. Senate job to campaign in 1978, I wanted to be in the middle of the action when we brought in victories for Barack Obama and Al Franken. I decided to get a room for the night so I could host some friends, monitor election results on television and be available to join the crowds in the hotel's ballroom.

By Tuesday afternoon, I expected Al Franken to win. I had spoken to a friend who is a confidant of Norm Coleman and the Senator's comments to our mutual friend suggested that he had seen some internal or exit polling and that he was not pleased with the results. Clearly, the race would be close. However, the extraordinary turnout the Obama campaign was generating bode ill for Senator Coleman's reelection.

Ultimately, the Senator's election day jitters may prove to have been justified.

Five days after the election, I am regularly asked by friends and acquaintances who feel, generally erroneously, I am more tuned in than they are, what I anticipate as an outcome, why the initial tallies keep changing and what will result from the recount.

I have decided to share my take in order to be on record for believing that there is a process in place that assures a fair review of the results, that the process needs to allowed to work, and that post-election interference with the process constitutes a much greater disservice to the electorate than any threat posed by ACORN employee misfeasance.

I went to sleep at about 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning. My friend Bert Black, the Secretary of State's attorney (in fact, not in title) had come to the hotel after leaving work late in the evening. We spent time until about 1 a.m. reviewing which results were missing as the number of reporting precincts grew past 90%, then went downstairs to hang out with the party faithful. By 2 a.m., Al was behind about 11,000 votes. However, I was cautiously optimistic because Bert's analysis had shown that Duluth, Eveleth, Grand Rapids and other parts of the Iron Range had yet to report. I made some assumptions about how the vote would split, how many votes would be cast and went to bed believing Al could make up the deficit. In fact, four hours later, the deficit had been reduced by more than 10,000 votes.

I was devastated. The late surge had not been enough. I called Bert Wednesday morning and received no news that led me to believe Al would pick up 728 votes in an automatic recount. Then the totals kept changing and the spread started to dwindle. In fact, the same phenomenum occurs during every election. Election officials, made up of judges from both political parties, undertaking their responsibilities in a system that is designed to prevent voter fraud, always review the unofficial numbers reported to the Secretary of State the night of the election to make sure that the figures they will give as part of the official count are accurate. The changes result from various forms of human error and do not reflect any change from the actual results of the just-concluded election. Usually, the change from the unofficial count is not reported by the media because it is not enough to affect the outcome of the election. In this year's Senate election, the changes are receving close scrutiny for obvious reasons.

The fact that there is such close scrutiny should provide comfort to us all. Crimes rarely occur when the criminal knows the world is watching. Why risk a conviction for voter fraud when (a) you know it would be difficult to manipulate numbers sufficiently to change an outcome, (b) every ballot is being scrutinized and (c) your candidate's opponent is on the lookout for cheating?

Because the results when officially reported on or about November 18th will show a difference of less than 0.005%, Minnesota law provides for an automatic recount. The purpose of the recount is to examine every ballot cast and determine as accurately as possible what were the actual results of the just-concluded election. Again, representatives of both campaigns are involved in monitoring the process and any unlawful activity would not go unnoticed.

It is important to note remember that, leaving aside votes for multiple candidates where only one is allowed, the law does not require that a voter complete a ballot as instructed in order for the ballot to count. The law provides that election judges are to determine the intent of the voter. Accordingly, if someone chose to draw an "x" through the oval next to Norm Coleman's name, the ballot is a valid vote for Norm Coleman. If someone circled Al Franken's name, the ballot would likely be considered a vote for Al Franken. Failure to neatly complete the oval on the ballot next to a candidate's name might make the ballot illegible to an optical reader in a mechanical ballot counter. Such failure does not disqualify the vote itself if another clear means of indicating preference is used.

The reality, of course, is that unless an election is close enough to justify a recount, the human machines who take over for the mechanical ballot counters never review the alternatively marked ballots. While not disqualified, absent a recount, the votes are simply not counted.

In the 1962-63 Minnesota recount, Karl Rolvaag picked up 233 votes during the process and defeated incumbent Governor Elmer L. Andersen. There were 1.3 million votes cast. As of this writing, there are less than 230 votes separating the candidates out of 2.9 million votes cast. My sense is that the recount will show that young and urban and first-time voters turned out by the Obama campaign are less likely to fill in the oval than, for example, the good Republicans of the Second and Sixth Congressional Districts. Again, that does not disqualify their vote, merely the machine's ability to read it.

Accordingly, I believe that a properly conducted recount, reviewing all ballots frozen in time as of November 4, 2008, whether or not counted by optical scanners, will determine that Al Franken has been elected to the U.S. Senate. I also believe that the system has enough built-in safeguards that, absent partisan judicial interference or evidence of material voter suppression by one campaign or another, the process will be fair and the choice of the electorate should be honored.

When I started writing tonight, I had intended to lament the venomous comments appearing on media web sites in response to reports on the election and the pending recount. I decided, instead, to put a more positive spin on my pondering. The paranoid conspiracy theorists expressing their opinions that the election is being stolen merely fall into my previously discussed class of citizens who are not bothered by the need to actually inform themselves before sharing their opinion or acting on the same. This includes, especially, "American1", whose comment on November 6's Strib article about the need for a recount declared that "people who can't fill out a ballot are to stupid to vote." I responded to him directly, like any good former newspaper editor would.

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