ST. PAUL, Minn. — Barely an hour into a statewide recount of Minnesota's close race for governor Monday, a volunteer for Democrat Mark Dayton gestured toward an 8-inch stack of ballots awaiting a second look.
"This is all we have to do today?" John Cisney asked, drawing chuckles from those around him.
Not by a long shot. He was in Ramsey County, home to 193,000 of the 2.1 million ballots that will get intense scrutiny as officials try to determine whether Dayton's pre-recount lead of almost 8,800 votes over Republican Tom Emmer holds up.
The taxpayer-funded recount is automatic because Dayton's lead is within a half-percentage point.
If Emmer overcomes Dayton's lead – a result most experts consider unlikely – the GOP would hold the governor's office and both chambers of the Legislature. Emmer could also sue if the recount confirms Dayton as the winner.
Officials got through more than 947,000 ballots on the first day, from roughly 63 percent of precincts. Dayton picked up 20 votes over his Nov. 2 totals for those precincts, while Emmer shed four. Emmer also challenged three times as many ballots as Dayton, not counting those challenges deemed "frivolous."
The goal is to wrap up the recount by mid-December. On the first day, 56 of Minnesota's 87 counties finished their counts.
Across the state, the whir of heavy-stock ballots being sorted into piles for each candidate broke the silence in government board rooms and courthouses.
In St. Paul, ballot sorter Charlie Thompson added to the recount symphony, calling out votes as he built the piles for each candidate and another for now-forgotten third-party hopefuls – Dayton, Dayton, Dayton, Horner, Emmer.
"I'll be saying the names in my sleep," Thompson said.
Guided by the experience from a drawn-out U.S. Senate recount two years ago, armies of election judges and candidate volunteers dove into the work and some smaller counties finished fairly quickly. The day's results weren't scheduled to be published until later Monday night.
In Hennepin County, home to one-fifth of Minnesota's voters, election officials and partisan observers filled two penned-off areas. They cycled in and out of the counting, with fresh observers waiting their turn while watching the tedium. Hennepin isn't expected to finish all its ballots until next Monday, even with weekend shifts.
There were a few early fireworks as attorneys clashed over how challenged ballots should be handled, particularly those that officials had the power to deem "frivolous."
County elections manager Rachel Smith convened a closed-door meeting to get them on the same page.
Emmer attorney Tony Trimble said he wanted assurances the challenged ballots – even those considered frivolous – were not mixed in with the totals of verified candidate votes. Before the meeting, Trimble was heard threatening to go to court over the issue.
Smith ruled the ballots should be separated. The process was refined after the Senate recount in an attempt to head off flimsy challenges.
"`Frivolous' challenges are new this year, and so did we anticipate that this might create a little hiccup? Sure," Smith said.
Near the end of a day in which Smith expected some 65,000 votes to be counted, Smith said partisans challenged 20 ballots on what election officials considered legitimate grounds. More than 150 challenges were deemed frivolous, all but a handful from Emmer's side.
Trimble disputed that the challenges were frivolous.
" `Frivolous' is a very subjective term, and so if the challenger thinks something should be challenged, even if others think it's frivolous, the state canvassing board can make the determination, not a table judge, no one else," he said.
Larry Jacobs, the auditor/treasurer in western Minnesota's Renville County, said his staff had no trouble identifying frivolous challenges. Jacobs said the Emmer camp lodged 423 challenges – and 422 were frivolous. That's nearly 20 percent of Dayton's votes in the county. Because the challenges were deemed frivolous, the votes remained in Dayton's column pending possible canvassing board review.
Jacobs said the lead observer for Emmer's team, whom he couldn't identify, told him she'd been instructed to challenge any ballot with writing on it – even a ballot with a write-in in another race.
"We had one bona fide challenge," Jacobs said. "I think it was pretty easy for me to determine, but that's not my place."
Ken Martin, director of Dayton's recount team, said the Dayton campaign expected to have fewer challenges than Emmer's side.
"We don't need to go out there and try to make up ground and challenge every ballot, so it's much different than it was in 2008 when you had hand-to-hand combat," he said.
Challenges matter because they can temporarily keep votes out of candidate columns, distorting the numbers as the process moves along. In 2008, most of the challenges were either withdrawn later or overruled by the state canvassing board.
In St. Paul, Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky told the campaigns he wouldn't stop them from making challenges.
"If you challenge, then I'm not going to challenge you," Mansky said at the outset.
But he did nudge the campaigns into letting clear-cut votes count, reviewing challenged ballots one-by-one with the lead candidate attorneys. Some challenges stuck, others were withdrawn.
The disputed ballots carried questionable marks or goofy write-ins that challengers construed as potentially identifying the voter – a no-no under Minnesota law.
The first challenge in St. Paul came 17 minutes after election officials lugged the first sealed boxes containing ballots to 10 tables.
Emmer observer Bob Murray lodged it over a mark above a candidate's name on the back of a ballot, possibly signaling an identifying mark. Murray targeted another a few minutes later over a tailing mark above a completed Dayton bubble.
"It's probably going to come back OK. Just in case," he said to no one in particular. "Most likely it's going to go through." All three of his challenges were later withdrawn after Emmer's attorney conferred with Mansky.
One of the people sorting ballots, Luke Leadbetter, noted that there were fewer close calls because voters took more care with their ballots this year, crisply filling in ovals. "People did learn" from 2008, he said.
Challenges that remain will be decided next week by the five-member state canvassing board.
If all goes as planned, every ballot will have had a second look by Dec. 7, and stacks of disputed ballots will have been sent to St. Paul for the canvassing board to rule on. A winner could be certified by Dec. 14, although litigation could follow.
Dayton and Emmer have both created transition teams to build their administrations. The next governor is supposed to take office Jan. 3, but there's a chance departing GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty could be pressed into longer service if the race isn't resolved by then.
Both candidates stayed out of public view as the recount got under way.