When Minnesotans woke up after Election Day, they were greeted by the sight of Norm Coleman proudly announcing victory in a press conference. "We wouldn't be where we are today, and where we are today, after a pretty long night, is me being humbled and grateful for the victory that the voters gave us last night," Coleman proclaimed. A press release shouting "re-elected" was sent to reporters. Coleman's website flashed the word "VICTORY." But there was just one problem: Coleman didn't win. The number of votes separating Coleman and challenger Al Franken was well within the margin required to trigger a recount, as mandated by law.
It wouldn't be the last time Coleman declared victory. Just this past Tuesday, Coleman crowned himself "winner" for at least the third time. As MSNBC.com's First Read noted, the "reason why Coleman is trying to look the part of the winner is to call into question any lead taken by Franken in the recount." (Disclosure: I worked for Franken from 2005-2007 and contributed to his campaign).
But Coleman's strategy of trying to look like the winner has gone beyond just premature victory laps. As part of his efforts to "call into question any lead taken by Franken," Coleman called for a stop to the legally-mandated recount and when that failed, floated false voter fraud stories, and smeared election officials.
After declaring victory on November 5, Coleman asked Franken to concede because "the prospect of overturning 725 votes is extremely, extremely, extremely remote" and a recount would cost taxpayers the ungodly sum of $87,000. Coleman, sounding like a certain Saturday Night Live character, added: "I just think the need for the healing process is so important."
But Coleman's declaration of an impassable "725" vote margin was premature at best. As Minnesota's Secretary of State's office explains, after November 4, "election officials proof their work and make corrections, as necessary. It is routine for election officials to discover a number of small errors, including improper data entry, transposition of digits (e.g., entering the number 48 instead of 84), and other items that affect the reported outcome." When the recount officially began on Wednesday, the ever-changing total stood at 215 votes, not 725 - a margin of only .007%. Statistician Nate Silver wrote that the difference between a 200 vote lead and 700 vote lead is "very important," since overcoming a 200 vote margin is manageable while making up 700 votes is nearly impossible.
With Franken allowing the legally-mandated recount to proceed as it should, Coleman turned to another tactic: Suggesting election officials are rigging votes for Franken.
The Coleman campaign has repeatedly portrayed Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie as a partisan Democrat who could tilt the election to Franken. Coleman's allies at the National Republican Senatorial Committee even baselessly suggested that Ritchie has ties to communists. Ritchie's sin? The Communist Party USA apparently once "wrote encouragingly of his candidacy." On Fox News, legal analyst Andrew Napolitano even falsely claimed Ritchie is a "former member of the Communist Party."
As Talking Points Memo's Zachary Roth noted, "there's no evidence that Ritchie has ever used his role as the state's top elections administrator to advantage Democrats." Indeed, when it came time for Ritchie's biggest recount decision -- appointing the board members in charge of ruling on disputed ballots -- he named two Republicans, one judge appointed by Independent Jesse Ventura, and one judge whose partisan leanings are unclear. (As required by law, he also named himself.) In other words, a bipartisan -- maybe even tripartisan -- panel.
The Coleman campaign has also gone after other election workers. The most infamous story floated by the campaign went something like this: Long after the polls closed on November 4, an election official suddenly finds and counts 32 absentee ballots found in her car. Surprise: They favor Al Franken.
As veteran Minnesota reporter David Brauer wrote, the car story emerged on November 8 from "Coleman lawyer Fritz Knaak, who, according to AP, told reporters, 'We were actually told ballots had been riding around in her car for several days, which raised all kinds of integrity questions.' Knaak never provided a source and did not return two MinnPost calls for comment. However, he was already backing off his story at the same press event. As that day's Pioneer Press noted, 'Knaak said he feels assured that what was going on with the 32 ballots was neither wrong nor unfair.'"
Brauer also noted that the election official in question -- Minneapolis Elections Director Cindy Reichert -- has emphasized that the "ballots were never in her car," the "ballots were never in anyone's car for several days," and the "ballots were never lost or forgotten, and spent Election Night until counting day in secure city facilities." Without any actual evidence to the contrary, the car ballot story should have died. Instead, it was repeated in media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, Politico, New York Post, Globe and Mail (Canada's largest newspaper), NBC's Today, and MSNBC. And yes, there was also Fox News.
In 2003, Fox unsuccessfully sued Franken -- who it called "shrill and unstable" -- for using the words "fair and balanced" on the cover of his book. (Fox, apparently pessimistic about the intelligence of its viewers, claimed that Franken's use of its slogan could confuse viewers into thinking they endorsed the book.) Five years later, there's no love lost: Hosts Sean Hannity, Brit Hume, Bill O'Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Fred Barnes were among those who repeated the dubious car ballot story.
When Coleman's post-election lead shrunk by roughly 500 votes during the pre-recount audit, the Coleman campaign complained that the shift was "statistically dubious and improbable" and once again suggested election workers may be nefariously tampering with results. But as Salon.com's Joe Conason wrote, the "insinuation of cheating is utterly wrong, as Minnesota Public Radio, one of the state's most respected news organizations, discovered in a review of election results from the past 10 years. On average, the MPR analysis showed that vote totals in statewide elections changed by well over 1,000 votes -- so the 'lopsided' difference in the Franken-Coleman race so far is below normal. It is also typical for the Democratic candidate's vote total to increase, no matter which party controls the state election apparatus (although the MPR analysts didn't try to explain why)."
In the end, Franken may very well lose, but that decision is for the voters and their ballots, not politicians. Coleman's repeated attempts to stop the recount and tarnish the process are not only undemocratic, they're examples of why Minnesotans -- and the rest of the nation -- should hope the recount finds for Franken.
Eric Hananoki is a senior researcher for Media Matters for America and a former researcher and segment producer for The Al Franken Show. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of his employer, Media Matters.
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