This article appeared at ProPublica.
Unlike many states, Minnesota has a solid idea of how well its
machines scan ballots because it randomly audits samples of votes. One
test found only one error out of 12,000 ballots. Another turned up as
many as 53 "discrepancies" -- between a machine's and a human's read --
out of 94,000.
That's impressively accurate for voting machines.
But it's not precise enough to predict who'll triumph in the U.S.
Senate race between Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al
Franken. They're currently separated by 206 votes out of 2.9 million
Coleman's unofficial lead amounts to .007 percent of the
vote, easily triggering Minnesota's required recount of any race closer
than .5 percent.
In a few days, election workers will begin
scrutinizing every single ballot cast in the race. Minnesota uses
optical scan ballots -- fill in the bubble -- so hanging chads are not
The outcome has national stakes, as a Franken victory would move Democrats closer to a 60-vote super-majority in the Senate.
those interested in election reform, the recount promises added drama.
The pros know that no voting system designed, used and overseen by
humans can be perfect. Voters may not follow directions. Machines can
misread stray marks or just break. Workers typing up machine results
can leave off the "1" in "124" (that mistake got caught last week in
Minnesota, however, has gotten unusually high marks
from experts for its record of election oversight. That record,
nonpartisan watchdogs say, stems largely from practices that other
states could import. The recount will test how well Minnesota's
procedures hold up under the closest scrutiny.
Election Systems & Software, the main provider of Minnesota's bubble-sheet scanners, has faced criticism
for a reported maintenance problem in Michigan. But Secretary of State
Mark Ritchie, a Democrat, said Minnesota did not have such problems.
"We test and retest. All our machines are always under review," he said.
Halvorson, director of the nonpartisan Citizens for Election Integrity
Minnesota (CEIMN), agreed that the technology has been impressively
accurate. He can say so because unlike many other states, Minnesota
since 2006 has required post-election audits. These audits test, by
manual recount, the accuracy of machines in a randomly selected
three-percent sample of votes in statewide elections.
year's selective audit is currently under way. Halvorson said he
relished the coincidence of a full statewide recount -- essentially, an
audit with a 100-percent sample size.
"I love it," he said, because it will show how close the selective audits get to capturing overall error rates.
Norden, national voting technology expert at the Brennan Center for
Justice, said that manual recounts are a good idea in razor-thin
contests. Even the best machines "might read stray marks as an
overvote" -- two votes for one office -- or not read bubbles filled in
with the wrong ink. "When it's this close, voters' intent becomes very
important," he said.
"We're not talking about improper activity," Republican National Committee member Brian Sullivan told the Minneapolis Star Tribune last week. "Just ballots where votes may not have been recorded if they weren't properly marked."
between intent and what a machine is able to read -- for instance,
voters have been known to circle a bubble rather than fill it in --
could show the need for the state to provide clearer directions, said
In the recount, local election workers will review each
paper ballot to verify the voter's intent. The campaigns and general
public are welcome to observe, and the state has posted online the standards for determining intent. Halvorson said CEIMN is training volunteers to monitor parts of the recount.
recount would be the largest in state history and is expected to take
as long as a month. Any disputed ballots will go to a central state
canvassing board of judges, appointed and overseen by the secretary of
state, for final decision.
For this recount, Ritchie has appointed at least two known Republicans,
prompting Coleman's lawyer to tell the Associated Press that "the
people of this state should feel good about who's on the panel."
of the state has been bipartisan. Last Friday, ahead by more than the
current 206 votes, Coleman's campaign asked whether the vote-tallying
process was "tainted." It sued Saturday
to block the counting of 32 absentee ballots, again questioning the
state's conduct, but lost. Yesterday Franken's campaign sued for access
to rejected absentee ballots, saying qualified voters might have been
Ritchie told ProPublica that he welcomed the
attention. "We have a chance to show the country how you do these
things right and reverse the bad image election administrators got out
of Florida [in 2000]," he said.
As a matter of principle, the
presiding official's party affiliation can't be ignored, said Edward
Foley, director of election law at Moritz College of Law. "[Ritchie]
may be a good-government type and well-meaning, but by definition he is
a member of one of the two teams with an interest."
But he said
Minnesota's political culture tempers his worry that election officials
will act as partisans. Minnesotans elected independent Jesse Ventura
governor in 1998, and some 15 percent of them picked neither
major-party candidate in this Senate race. That they're not clearly
moved by mere party loyalty, he said, should give pause to anyone
inclined to tilt an election result for their party.
Foley's colleague, Nathan Cemenska -- a lawyer who prefers to be called "the web editor of Election Law @ Moritz,"
a nonpartisan national clearinghouse on its title subject -- says a
similar nonpartisan culture characterizes the state’s bench, which
would decide any post-recount legal contest.
unsatisfied with a recount result or wanting to claim problems -- such
as bribery or polling-place harassment -- that go beyond ballot
interpretation, may file a legal challenge. The state Supreme Court's
chief justice, currently a Republican, would appoint a panel of three
judges to hear the case.
Although the judges are elected,
Cemenska said, "Minnesota has the best judiciary in the country. They
run on a nonpartisan ballot. They have a tradition of not talking about
party affiliation. I tried and couldn't figure it out without
Without a known advantage, he said, litigating
election results could be risky. Voters called to testify about their
intended choice, for instance, may have changed their minds since
Election Day. He compared the uncertainty to physics's Heisenberg principle:
"When you're determining the position of an electron relative to a
neutron, the mere act of trying to determine its position changes its
position. That's how it is with this election stuff."
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