As has been reported elsewhere, the recount of the Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken is only the second recount of statewide election results in Minnesota since the 1962 gubernatorial race. The other recount was, of course, just a couple of months ago — and that came in a judicial election.
As loyal readers of this blog will no doubt recall, Supreme Court Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea faced three challengers in the primary — public defender Richard Gallo, Minneapolis attorney Jill Clark and Hennepin County District Court Judge Deborah Hedlund. In judicial races, which are nonpartisan, the top two vote-getters earn a place on the November ballot. Gildea finished on top with about 54 percent of the vote; Gallo was the bottom vote-getter with about 11 percent. That left Clark and Hedlund to vie for the second spot on the general election ballot. Statistically, they were both fairly evenly split, with both getting between 17 and 18 percent of the vote. Hedlund had an edge in the unofficial tally — 1,369 votes of more than 316,000 cast in the race. Because state law requires a recount if an election is decided by less than a .5 percent margin, an automatic recount was triggered. Clark narrowed the margin by just seven votes in the recount, not nearly enough to displace Hedlund as the number two vote-getter. Hedlund went on to the general election, where she lost her challenge against Gildea.
The Coleman/ Franken recount — which hasn’t even started yet — has already proved to be a lot less smooth. Last Wednesday morning — the day after the election — the unofficial tally had Coleman ahead by 725 votes out of more than 2.8 million cast. However, as counties double check and verify their reporting, Coleman’s lead has shrunk to just 204 votes.
The Coleman/ Franken recount will be much more controversial than the judicial race recount for many reasons, including:
- The margin is much closer — 204 votes in a race where each candidate has about 1.21 million votes vs. 1,369 votes in a race where the candidates each had between 55,000 and 57,000 votes.
- Primary races tend to be not as closely watched as general election races, since the “winners” only go onto the November ballot rather than into public office.
- Judicial races garner much less attention than presidential, congressional or even state legislative races. We have chronicled on this blog the many ways that this fact is unfortunate, but that doesn’t stop it from being true.
- Senate races, unlike judicial races, are partisan. This makes a difference for many reasons. For example, in a nonpartisan race, you don’t have to worry as much that a voting issue in a GOP or DFL stronghold will affect the candidates disproportionately; you also don’t have to worry about politics affecting vote counters’ decisions about which votes to count (and not count).
I could go on, but I think you get the general gist. No matter what happens with this recount (and I have every confidence that Secretary of State Mark Ritchie will do all he can to make it as clean as possible), the race will provide the political blogosphere conspiracy-theory fodder for many years to come.
Conspiracy theories aside, our imperfect system of paper ballots and scanning technology with recounts by hand is just not set up well for elections this close. Even an error of just one vote tabulating every 10,000 recounted will yield a difference of 240 votes when counters are sifting through 2.4 million ballots. Are you confident you could work your way through 10,000 ballots without making a single mistake? I sometimes have difficulty double checking my change when I purchase something. Yet I don’t think many of us at this point want to shift our elections completely over to computers. All it would take would be one really good hacker or one really bad virus to make Joe the Plumber the president of the United States. No thanks!
I think for the time being we are stuck with our imperfect system. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it’s the worst system in existence, except for all the other systems.