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Politics of the Past: The razor-thin election of 1962

Editor’s note: Capitol Report is dipping into the Minnesota Historical Society’s political archives and scooping out documents and artifacts exploring the state’s rich record of voting reforms, colorful politicians, contested elections, curious facial hair and more.

“The governor’s race became a seesaw affair,” Gov. Elmer Anderson wrote about the first few days after the 1962 election. A recount would delay the declaration of a winner until March 1963. (Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

“The governor’s race became a seesaw affair,” Gov. Elmer Anderson wrote about the first few days after the 1962 election. A recount would delay the declaration of a winner until March 1963. (Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

There were no hanging chads or last-minute crowdfunding campaigns, but the 1962 gubernatorial race — the closest statewide election in Minnesota’s history — provided plenty of post-Election Day drama.

The state was held in suspense as Republican Gov. Elmer L. Anderson battled his DFL challenger, Lt. Gov. Karl Rolvaag, in the courts as the State Canvassing Board splintered along party lines and as teams of recount workers hand-inspected each of the 786,947 paper ballots cast. Choosing a winner would take 4½ months.

In his autobiography, “A Man’s Reach,” Anderson described the days after the Nov. 6 election as “a seesaw affair.” “First I would be ahead by a few thousand votes, then Rolvaag would jump into the lead, then I would surge ahead again,” he wrote. (Anderson and Rolvaag were not running mates; the lieutenant governor was elected separately in Minnesota until 1974.) Republican and DFL leaders and lawyers began working 18-hour days, seven days a week, a pace they would maintain through March, not even resting for holidays. On Thanksgiving Day, a janitor found a box containing all 5,000 ballots of Watonwan County discarded atop a trash heap. The box did not appear to have been tampered with, but the incident sparked public confusion and raised doubts about an unprecedentedly narrow election.

When the Canvassing Board first met three weeks after Election Day, the returns showed two tallies — both a virtual tie. In an election with more than 1.2 million votes cast on paper or by machine, the margin of victory hovered around .01 percent. If only the original totals were counted, Rolvaag would win by 58 votes. But if the returns of 10 counties were amended to correct “obvious errors,” Anderson would prevail by 142 votes.

The Canvassing Board was indecisive. Two DFL-appointed members wanted to give the election to Rolvaag, two Republican appointees thought it should go to Anderson and the board ultimately decided to punt the issue to the Supreme Court.

The state’s high court was stacked against Rolvaag. Two Supreme Court justices owed their seats to Anderson and a third, Oscar Knutson, owed the governor his chief justiceship. Anderson’s three favored justices now had an opportunity to show their gratitude. They provided the 3-2 margin by which the court directed the Canvassing Board to accept the amended returns and declare Anderson the winner. “Whether the individual decisions producing such a result were coincidental or political was and is for each person to determine for himself,” Ronald Stinnett and Charles Backstrom wrote in “Recount,” their book-length analysis of the 1962 election.

Lt. Gov. Karl Rolvaag receives congratulations after winning a four-month-long recount in the gubernatorial election of 1962. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

Lt. Gov. Karl Rolvaag receives congratulations after winning a four-month-long recount in the gubernatorial election of 1962. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

Whether or not it was guided by a principled jurisprudence, the court’s ruling would not decide the election. Rolvaag soon filed for a recount and Anderson agreed to cooperate, though state law did not yet trigger an automatic recount in close elections. “I did not want to do anything that might give rise to public suspicion,” Anderson wrote in his autobiography.

A turning point in the post-election saga came when the high court charged a three-judge panel with overseeing the recount. The panel imposed a degree of order on the proceedings, and the process of picking a winner began to look more straightforward and transparent. “From this point on, the recount was to move as expeditiously and efficiently as possible,” Stinnett and Backstrom wrote. “The fumbling, confusion, the searching, the groping, the uncertainty were beginning to cease.” The nearly half a million votes cast by machine were double-checked against tally sheets, and three-member bipartisan recount teams inspected paper ballots one-by-one.

As the vote counting dragged on, Anderson gave Rolvaag office space in the Capitol: an 8-foot by 16-foot basement room located directly beneath the governor’s suite and furnished with cardboard boxes in lieu of a filing cabinet. “I thought I was doing the gracious thing, so he and his advisers would not need to rent space elsewhere,” Anderson wrote in his autobiography. “But Rolvaag’s chief of staff Jim Rice called the space ‘a broom closet,’ and the name stuck with the media.”

In the long aftermath of the election, Anderson and Rolvaag did not see their popularity rise. The morning of March 21, the final day of the recount, the St. Paul Pioneer Press published an editorial underlining Minnesota voters’ deep ambivalence toward the two men who sought to lead them. “No one stands to have a glorious great mandate from the people and no one stands to have suffered ignominious repudiation,” the paper wrote. “The people have clearly endorsed neither party.”

The three-judge panel ruled Rolvaag the winner by 91 votes, a margin of less than one-hundredth of 1 percent. Anderson stepped down on March 25, having served 75 days beyond his scheduled term. It took Rolvaag just 15 minutes to move upstairs from his basement broom closet into the gold-ceilinged governor’s office.

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