THE BLOG
03/26/2009 10:50 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Lessons from Lake Wobegon

Many people know Minnesota from Garrison Keillor's stories about the fabled town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." Occasionally, we all fall victim to viewing our circumstances through rose-tinted glasses. Like Lake Wobegon's residents, many of our elected leaders have fallen victim to the same psychology regarding our election systems.

One needs to look no further than Florida in 2000 or Ohio in 2004 to know that our election systems are in need of repair. Still, there are examples of states getting it right. In fact, those in Minnesota are making the case that they do in fact have an election system that is "above average." Common Cause agrees.

Recently, Minnesota has had its "above average" system put under the microscope by the still-unresolved Senate election recount between Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken. Over the last five months, election officials poured over scads of ballots and judges heard weeks of testimony in hopes of resolving the race and declaring a winner.

Despite the razor thin margin, Minnesota's election system performed well. Absent were the large scale meltdowns experienced by other states during previous election contests. Some may say it was the cold winter, but in fact it was the rigorous and transparent process already in place. Truth be told, we are fortunate that the closest election in Senate history happened in Minnesota.

During the long months of recount, we learned that three things make for an "above average" election system: elections officials committed to a fair process, strong election laws and paper ballots. Minnesota has all three, constituting a transparent election system that ensures fairness.

Some would say Minnesota's large Scandinavian influence provides a steady hand for ethical election administration. Perhaps so, but undoubtedly Minnesota has also had a series of well-respected secretaries of state who operated that office in a non-partisan manner, creating one of the best election administration systems in the country.

These strong leaders saw that Minnesota enacted and implemented some of the best election laws on the books -- laws which specifically create an effective, open and transparent process, particularly for those rare times in which elections are extraordinarily close.

For example, before the recount even began last fall, Minnesota conducted audits of the ballot machines to make sure that the counts were accurate. This audit instilled confidence in the accuracy of the machines before the first Senate ballot was ever recounted.

Then when it came time to actually recount the ballots, every vote was counted in a slow and methodical manner. The most important aspect was the amount of transparency throughout the entire process. This requirement often forced election officials to answer tough questions, but helped ensure that voters had faith and confidence in the outcome.

This brings us to our third component of an above-average system: paper ballots. Unlike many states, Minnesota did not rush to buy expensive voting machines after the 2000 election fiasco. This decision proved to be wise, because the machines Minnesota uses provide a verified paper trail, which has prompted many states that initially invested in new equipment to return to these types of optical scan systems.

The less than one-half of one-percent margin in the Minnesota Senate race triggered an automatic hand recount to ensure that ballots validly marked by the voter, which the voting machine's optical scanner could not read, were counted. This is significant. Without a verified paper record, these ballots would not have been considered and those votes not counted. Continuing to operate transparently, the ballots themselves could be viewed on the internet and the counting process was live-streamed online.

No system is perfect. In fact, Common Cause is advocating for election reforms in Minnesota, having learned lessons from the Senate recount.

Yet, when the National Association of Secretaries of State meets in Minnesota this summer, they should take back to their states some of these great ideas that have been coming from Minnesota. That is the only way that every state will have an election system that is "above average."