The U.S. Senate recount took two abrupt turns Tuesday, both boosting the prospects of DFLer Al Franken.
Franken unexpectedly picked up 37 votes due to a combined machine
malfunction and human error on Election Day that left 171 Maplewood
ballots safe, secure but uncounted until Tuesday's final day of
recounting in Ramsey County. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's office
immediately asked county officials to explain what had happened, and
U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman's campaign said it sent its own experts to
Ramsey County to review the situation and said it was "skeptical about
[the ballots'] sudden appearance."
By the end of Tuesday, with 93 percent of the total vote recounted,
the Republican's lead stood at 303 votes with the state Canvassing
Board set to finalize results Dec. 16. More than 6,000 ballots have
been challenged by the two campaigns, with Coleman challenging 183 more
Two large metro counties, Scott and Wright, are among four counties scheduled to begin their recounts today.
The day's other news -- which Franken's campaign quickly described
as a "breakthrough" -- came when Ritchie's office asked local election
officials to examine an estimated 12,000 rejected absentee ballots and
determine whether their rejection fell under one of four reasons for
rejection defined in state law. The Secretary of State's office asked
that ballots that were rejected for something other than the four legal
reasons be placed into a so-called "fifth category."
The fifth category, Ritchie's office said, could also include
absentee ballots rejected for reasons that were "not based on factual
Ritchie's office, while stressing that the ballots be examined but not counted, asked that the task be completed by Dec. 18.
The move appeared to give at least some new life to the Franken
campaign's longstanding effort to add to the recount what it estimates
are as many as 1,000 improperly rejected absentee ballots.
Ritchie was not available Tuesday to elaborate on his office's
instructions and the other four Canvassing Board members, all of whom
are judges, declined to comment.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann said the action was taken by
Ritchie's senior staff without consulting with Ritchie. He said that
because Ritchie's office was not entirely clear on what the Canvassing
Board had directed it to do last week, they reviewed a tape of the
meeting. "It was very clear," said Gelbmann, referring to the board,
"... they wanted to know how many ballots were in the five categories."
The letter to local election officials comes as the Canvassing Board
awaits a state attorney general's opinion on whether the board has the
authority to count the ballots in the fifth pile, or if that is
something that only can be ordered by a court.
Fritz Knaak, Coleman's lead recount attorney, minimized the impact
of the move and said Ritchie's office was not asking local election
officials to count any of the five categories of rejected absentee
ballots, and had written those instructions in bold type in its letter.
"They were not directing that those be counted, but they are being set
aside. And, of course, we're not surprised, and that's fine," he said.
Franken's campaign heralded the news as a significant development,
and said it came on a day when the campaign's own internal recount
showed that Coleman's lead had dwindled to 50 votes. "[This] process is
not complete until every vote is counted. And today's directive is an
important step," said Andy Barr, Franken's communications director.
Marc Elias, Franken's lead recount attorney, also said there was no
significance to the campaign's decision to hold its daily briefings
this week for reporters in Washington, D.C., a move Knaak described as
further evidence that Franken's overall strategy was to have the U.S.
Senate ultimately decide the race.
"I'm presuming he's strategizing with Democrats about his Senate
floor strategy to ignore the will of Minnesota voters," said Knaak.
The U.S. Constitution gives each house of Congress broad authority to judge the elections and qualifications of its members.
Operator error blamed
Ramsey County's recount problem caught many by surprise.
County election officials said Tuesday the problem started on
Election Day morning at the Hazelwood Fire Station in Precinct 6 in the
heart of Maplewood. When a ballot counter kept jamming, officials
called for a runner to swap out the broken counter with one that worked.
By then, 171 people had voted and their ballots had been fed into
the ballot box. Ninety-one of those votes were cast for Franken, 54 for
Coleman and 26 for other candidates.
When the new counter replaced the one that malfunctioned, officials
said an election judge should have re-fed the 171 ballots back in so
they would be counted on the official tape. Instead, they sat in the
ballot box and then in secured transfer cases until they were
discovered by recount officials Tuesday at the Ramsey County recount
site on Plato Blvd.
The error was blamed on an election judge's failure to follow proper
procedures, according to Karen Guilfoile, Maplewood's director of city
services. She stressed that all the votes were properly cast and
securely protected the last month.
A second election judge error in the same precinct had Coleman
observers wondering why there were 31 more ballots than voters who had
signed in on Election Day. Guilfoile said the mistake involved absentee
voters who properly sent in their registration cards, but whose names
judges failed to record on the voting rolls on Election Day.
Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky said the discovery of 171
ballots at the end of the county's 278,000-ballot recount proves the
system works -- even when recounting 40,000 ballots a day as they did
in Ramsey County.
"Our object here is to make sure every ballot gets counted as it was
cast by the voter," Mansky said. "If we pick up some ballots that are
not properly counted on Election Night, so much the better. That's a
good thing. I don't see any downside."
The final Ramsey County recount numbers showed Franken picking up 70
net votes, including the 37 discovered Tuesday, in what has long been a
DFL stronghold. Slightly more than 400 votes in the county have been
challenged by the two campaigns.
Mansky, meanwhile, said the memo Tuesday from Ritchie's office
regarding rejected absentee ballots could actually help Coleman, who
lives in Ramsey County and spent eight years as St. Paul's mayor. "One
would think Coleman would be a possible beneficiary" if the rejected
absentee ballots are allowed in, Mansky said.
Staff writer Bob von Sternberg and Washington correspondent Mitch Anderson contributed to this report.