POLITICS

Minnesota Recount: Missing Ballots, Smudged Marks, Democracy

12/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Missing ballots, obnoxious challengers, questionable smudges - election observers have seen it all in Minnesota's closely-watched recount of the Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken. But overall, participants in the recount report a remarkably smooth demonstration of democracy in action.

HuffPost volunteers in Minnesota sent us their reports and observations of the recount which started last Wednesday, November 19.

If you want to help HuffPost report this developing story, send your observations to specialops@huffingtonpost.com.

Monday, November 24

Terry Kalil reports:

This was the first day of the recount in Becker County where 3691 (20%) ballots were counted out of the total 18,093 ballots.

The big news at the opening of the recount was an announcement by county auditor Ryan Tangen that 64 ballots were not counted on election night. The ballots were received by the county auditor and stored in the secure ballot area but, through an oversight, were not counted. Of the 64 ballots, 3 were rejected for invalid voter registration issues. The remaining 61 ballots are a mixture of absentee ballots and those from a number of precincts, including 7 from Shell Lake Township (my precinct) where 130 total votes were cast.

After consulting with the Secretary of State and the Minnesota Attorney General, the auditor secured the ballots in a separate envelope and they will be incorporated separately into the recount. Both parties were notified of this matter before the day's recount began. The auditor also verified that the ballots did not affect the outcomes of local school, city, county or legislative races.

During the recount, one precinct was missing 4 ballots -- 3 for Coleman, 1 for Franken. An absentee ballot containing the missing ballots was located in the precinct's supply box, which had been stored in the secure ballot storage area. The Franken campaign attempted to challenge the 3 Coleman ballots because they were not secured in the ballot box. After consulting the Secretary of State, the auditor announced that because challenges can only be made during this recount for voter intent reasons, the Franken campaign could not challenge the ballots. These 4 ballots were separated and secured in case the issue of ballot security is raised post-recount.

The Franken campaign challenged 12 ballots counted for Coleman. The Coleman campaign challenged 12 ballots counted for Coleman. Challenges came primarily in Detroit Township (rural Detroit Lakes) where Franken challenged 11 of Coleman's 621 votes and Coleman challenged 9 or Franken's 376 ballots.

Michael Bodnarchek reports:

I spent two days in the recount center in St Paul Minnesota which is in Ramsey County and is the second largest county in the state. Having seen thousands of votes I think US Senator Norm Coleman will win. There has not been a dramatic shift. There will be a challenge in court just based on the response of the Franken people who were outnumbered in the count by Coleman people. They were much more vocal about a challenging votes which is usually the case when someone is losing or have lost.

Saturday, November 22

Donavon Cawley Reports:

I was bored today, so I decided to go visit the Minneapolis ballot warehouse, where all ballots in the city are being recounted. My goal was a noble one - get as many photographs of the process as possible, and license them under a Creative Commons license, so people on the internet can freely use and distribute photographs of the process. There are so many news organizations without people on the ground over here, and websites that want to report on the event, that free content is in high demand, with very little available to provide for them. Plus, the Minneapolis ballot warehouse is just a five minute drive from my house, so I had little excuse not to go.

Anyway, my trip was only a moderate success. I've gotten photographs, but none of them are very interesting. After asking her a few times, Cynthia Reichert, the Director of Elections for Minneapolis, had refused to allow me access to the contested ballots "as an administrative decision," meaning she didn't damn well feel like it. So the only photos of contested ballots I could get were from afar, and even then, the election judges were covering up the parts of the ballot that had the Senate votes so as to foil me.

The Minneapolis ballot warehouse is a monster of a building containing 10 teams of two election judges, one Franken representative, and one Coleman representative each. Not to mention the bulk of the warehouse being dedicated to housing a city's worth of ballots, ballot transportation units, and ballot counting machines. On top of that, there are election officials, lawyers, observers, and media wandering around in the taped off zones in the center. It was, um, busy.

The recount was a fairly smooth endeavor, with election judges gliding through ballots that had been presorted by the machines, and verifying that they were indeed Franken or Coleman votes. Representatives from each campaign were watching intently - sometimes too intently. If a ballot looked questionable to them, the judge put it aside, and when the precinct was finished counting, it would be brought over to the challenge table, where volunteers, lawyers, and election judges would duke it out.

The challenge table was made off limits to me and the only other media there today, KARE11-TV, the NBC affiliate in Minneapolis. This table was usually crowded with volunteers who didn't belong there, but were just interested to see how the challenges were going down. This was a quiet point where there were only the appropriate people there.

I was able to catch a few shots of challenged ballots. Most of them seemed to be bogus, with smudges and scribbles being challenged as changing the voters' intent. One ballot saw, but could not photograph, was a ballot that was clearly marked for Al Franken, but also marked for John McCain; this apparently is a Coleman strategy of alleging that if they voted for McCain, the voter's intent obviously was to vote for Coleman as well. Keep in mind, however, the ballots I saw were the ones that were just set aside by the election judges, and did not pass through any kind of legal rigors at the challenge table.

Check out my Flickr gallery. All photos are Creative Commons licensed, so anyone can use any of these photos, so long as I am notified and attributed.

Barbara Boldenow reports:

I have spent Wednesday & Thursday monitoring the recount at two different locations for an organization called CEIMN, Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota and filed reports with them. This is an official organization affiliated with the League of Women Voters. Their website is www.ceimn.org.

In two days of observing, I saw not one instance of irregularity. The process was meticulous. A video explanation would show the country how important paper ballots are and how an election and recount should be conducted. I am so proud to be a Minnesota voter.

I would strongly recommend someone get to a recount location to record a video story on our recount. There is no doubt that whoever wins this race, the vote count will be accurate. How wonderful this close race happened in Minnesota.

Friday, November 21

Steve Cross reports:

I haven't just "visited" a recount site, I've worked an one for the last two days. I am a "challenger" for Al Franken's campaign.

Although I've got that connection, I'd say that nobody could have any valid complaint about the process. I suppose the loser will have complaints but that doesn't mean they are valid (including my guy if he loses).

Here's the process:

The ballots have been kept in a locked room since election day. (Some have been kept in an empty cell at the county jail -- at which, shall we say -- it is impossible to walk in and tinker with something.) The ballots for the day are brought to the recount room by the county auditor or city election commissioner. (Ours were accompanied by a uniformed officer with a sidearm.)

A box or boxes are brought to a table for recount. At each table are: a deputy auditor or election commissioner; two election judges (lay people paid for working the recount just like working the polls on election day); two challengers for one candidate; two challengers for the other candidate. So, there are seven pairs of eyes watching the recount of each precinct. In addition to the official recount people, the public can come in and watch to their heart's content provided that they don't cross a plastic chain mounted on short polls. (In other words, they can't get in the way of those doing the official recount.) Among those watching are people from the League of Women Voters who are watching everything including -- including the other watchers.

Then, one-by-one, the ballots are taken off the pile of ballots and put into separate piles for Franken, Coleman, and Others (in one pile for all). The challengers see them all and can correct any placement in the wrong pile. They can also challenge the ballot on the basis that the voter's intent isn't clear because of confusing marks, too many marks, too few marks, or stray marks that indicate who the voter is. All challenged ballots go to the State Canvassing Board for decision.

When the separation is done, the pile for each candidate is counted. Ballots are grouped into groups of 25 with the succeeding 25 placed at right angles. (Thus, it's easy to see the total by the tower of votes stacked in different directions. A count of each pile is carried out and everyone there must agree that the count to be reported is correct. All challenged ballots are reported separately.

The totals are then reported to the auditor or election commissioner who compares the count to the count taken after the polls closed on election night. If the numbers agree, then it's "Happy Day" and the pile is taken away and the raw ballots of a new precinct are brought to the table. However, if they do NOT agree, then the ballots and procedure are reviewed to try to find the discrepancy. (It usually is. The auditor or election commissioner is the smartest man or woman in the room and he or she usually figures out the reason. However, if no reason can be found, the recount of the precinct starts over.)

It is my firm impression that even if someone wanted to jimmy the system, the system is incapable of being jimmied. The people doing the counting are ordinary citizen volunteers who are serious about getting the count right. The whole procedure is a credit to democracy.

The State Canvassing Board is the ultimate decider of everything including the accuracy of the final count. It consists of two Supreme Court Justices, two judges of the Ramsey County District Court (the County that the capitol is located in) and the Secretary of State. Both campaigns have approved the justices and judges that have been put on the canvassing board.

There are 2,900,000+ ballots to be recounted. When the work is done, the number will be exactly right and not just approximately right.

Anyone who says that the process isn't fair and accurate doesn't know what they are talking about.

PS -- About 19 days were allocated to the recount. After 3 days, about 50% have been counted. With 2,900,000 ballots, that's about 333,000 ballots counted each day. Not bad for a bunch of ordinary citizens.

Eric Oines reports:

My wife is an election judge. It is all going quite smoothly. There have been challenges, but by all accounts everything is on the up and up. Both sides are letting it proceed unhindered and unharrassed.

Susanna Patterson reports:

I worked as an Observer/Challenger for the Franken Campaign at the Washington County Government Center on the first day of the recount -- Wednesday, November 19. I hate to sound corny, but there's really no other way of putting it: The whole process restored my faith in Democracy -- at least so far as it is defined by the voting process in Minnesota.

Without exception, the participants were all very civil to one another, regardless of their partisan leanings. All of the election judges and clerks that I worked with were very accommodating, willingly slowing down, recounting batches, and stopping when I wanted to take a second or third look at a particular ballot. We developed a rapport amongst the members of our sorting-and-counting teams -- including the representatives of the opposition -- laughing together at some of the more bizarre write-ins that we came across.

Virtually all of us were guided by the common sense spirit of Minnesota's law, which says that the goal of those examining the ballots is to determine the actual intent of the voter -- and not to become obsessed with technicalities and minutiae.

I will be observing the count again tomorrow -- probably in Washington County again, but perhaps in Ramsey or Hennepin County -- and I fully expect to find the same spirit of cooperation, cameraderie and common sense, regardless of where I am assigned.

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