They’re starting over in Minnesota

Huffstutter is a Times staff writer.

The 2008 election is far from over in Minnesota.

A breathtakingly narrow lead in the Senate race -- 215 ballots in favor of incumbent Norm Coleman over challenger Al Franken, out of 2.9 million cast -- has sparked lawsuits, accusations of electoral shenanigans and a Midwestern take on the 2000 hunt for hanging chads in Florida.

State election officials Wednesday began hand-counting the optically scanned ballots because the race’s whisper-thin margin triggered a mandatory recount.

In St. Paul, impatient election judges and volunteer observers gathered at 8:30 a.m. in a conference room and listened to Ramsey County Election Manager Joseph Mansky calmly outline the rules.


One ballot should be reviewed every five seconds, and at least 30,000 ballots would be counted each day. Keep an eye out for stray marks. No food or coffee or anything that could spill near the ballots.

Mansky apologized for leaving before the first white box was unsealed. “I’ve got to go to court,” he said. “I’m being sued.”

Franken has filed suit to release information on voters in Ramsey County whose absentee ballots were rejected.

Hundreds of lawyers and recently trained “ballot verification” volunteers from Coleman’s and Franken’s camps were dispatched to more than 100 recount locations to watch election staff members judge every mark, pen stroke and smudge.

The final outcome could be decided by mid-December, though some observers predict the battle could stretch to January if there are more legal challenges.

This theater of curiosity and suspicion could determine the legislative path of President-elect Barack Obama.

Minnesota is one of two undecided Senate races.

If Franken wins, Democrats will have a 59-seat majority, leaving Georgia Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss as the lone obstacle keeping Democrats from their longed-for goal of 60 seats -- the number needed to have filibuster-proof control in the Senate. Chambliss faces a Dec. 2 runoff with Democrat Jim Martin.

“Clearly, the Democrats are getting close to the threshold of 60 seats,” said Dan Hofrenning, a political science professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. “Each step closer becomes more monumental.”

This isn’t the first time a high-profile Minnesota race has demanded such a laborious second look.

In 1962, incumbent Gov. Elmer L. Andersen thought he had beaten challenger Karl Rolvaag. The pair battled over the results and a recount for months. Rolvaag was named the winner by 91 votes.

The race between Coleman and Franken, one of the original writers for “Saturday Night Live,” has been long and bitter.

The race grew more contentious after the polls closed. On the morning after the election, unofficial results showed Coleman ahead by 725 votes. Both garnered 42% of the vote.

As Coleman declared victory Nov. 5, he urged Franken to waive his right to a recount, which state law requires in races where the margin between winner and loser is less than one-half of 1%. A losing candidate can request a recount not be held. But Franken wanted one.

As the days passed, the tally changed, and Coleman’s lead ultimately dwindled.

Both sides have flooded the courts and secretary of state’s office with legal challenges and requests, including wanting the state election canvassing board to examine rejected absentee ballots and attempting to examine county auditors’ data-collection methods.

Reports of irregularities have emerged.

In Mountain Iron, the tallies reported on election night were revised to add 100 votes for Franken -- but the time stamp on a voting machine’s recording tape was marked Nov. 2, two days before the election.

How many votes may have been misread by the state’s optical scanners is unclear, but state and county officials estimate that it is one or two ballots out of every 1,000. In Ramsey County, the seat of the Capitol, that could mean 200 to 300 ballots, Mansky said.

Unlike some states, where voters select a candidate by punching a hole through a ballot or use a stylus to tap their choice on an electronic screen, Minnesotans use a pen or other writing implement to mark a paper ballot. Optical reading machines then register the marks.

By late Wednesday morning, the county election chief was back from his brief appearance in Ramsey County District Court, where a judge granted Franken’s request.

Mansky roamed through the eight recount stations in the conference room.

There was such a crush of observers from both sides -- grandparents, college students, office workers -- that Mansky occasionally had to squeeze his way through the crowd.

The mood was somber and people spoke in whispers -- until someone questioned a ballot.

One Franken observer questioned whether a voter intended to pick Coleman because the black mark scrawled next to his name edged into another candidate’s oval.

A Coleman volunteer asked Mansky -- several times -- whether the fact that a mark next to Franken’s name was lighter than checks made elsewhere on the ballot meant the voter didn’t intend to vote for Franken.

Mansky patiently told the observer that the voter selected Franken.

Another election judge several tables away called Mansky’s name. Moments later, at the other end of the room, came another call for help.

Taking a deep breath, Mansky moved on to deal with the challenges.