Why Minnesota's Recount Process is a Model for the Country
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By Mark Halvorson, David Klein, and Pamela Smith
November 22, 2008
With a celebrity candidate and record-setting expenditures the race to represent Minnesota in the US Senate captured the nation’s attention even before the historically close margin was announced. An automatic, manual recount of the Minnesota U.S. Senate race that began could last until mid-December. As non-partisan, election integrity advocates in Minnesota, we welcome this attention and hope that one of the outcomes will be lessons learned that strengthen our democracy.
One reason for our optimism is that Minnesota’s election system minimizes problems and circumstances that have historically reduced voter confidence. The occurrence of such problems and circumstances in other states plagued the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. The people, procedures, and technology comprising Minnesota’s election system are among the most respected in the nation. Minnesota’s election system has great potential to certify results that accurately reflect the will of the voters and in which voters can have confidence.
Minnesota’s reputation for electoral integrity begins with the state's choice of election technology: a system of voter-marked paper ballots which are read by optical-scan machines. A meaningful recount is possible because the paper ballots provide a permanent record of each voter’s intent. Such a permanent record does not exist in all states; over one third of the states use electronic machines that do not offer voter-verifiable paper records. Many top computer security experts have warned that paperless electronic voting is inherently insecure and does not provide for a real recount.
Minnesota’s election process is characterized by transparency and openness. Citizens can, and do, observe the process. For example, Citizens For Election Integrity Minnesota, The League of Women Voters Minnesota, and Common Cause Minnesota are mobilizing a non-partisan citizen observation of the recount to protect the integrity of the process.
Minnesota independently assesses the accuracy of the election system that uses optical scanners by auditing a random sample of roughly 5% of the ballots immediately after every federal election cycle; 16 states conduct post-election audits, which is the highest number ever, but not high enough. There is no question that every state should include a mandatory process to independently check the accuracy of election results that includes provisions to expand the verification when errors are detected. Moreover, such post-election review processes need to have mechanisms in place to see that the errors are corrected automatically instead of needing to go to a judicial or a legislative body. The audits, along with the 2008 primary election recount, have given Minnesota election officials statewide the experience in manually counting ballots and in determining voter intent necessary for the impending U.S. Senate recount.
Claims of partisan application of the law will inevitably be leveled in these situations. Certainly there is a benefit to laws in Minnesota and elsewhere that prevent our state’s chief election officer from grossly appearing to have a conflict of interest such as overseeing an election while also chairing the state’s committee to elect one of the candidates as was the case in Florida (2000) and Ohio (2004).
The detailed, written procedures of the Minnesota recount law leave little room for discretion or bias in conducting the recount, covering: the ballot chain of custody, ballot counting, and the interpretation of voter intent. The Minnesota recount law requires that 100% of accepted ballots be manually inspected, counted, and tallied.
At the end of the recount, we expect to see a lot of really bored lawyers, election officials, reporters, and citizens who were present for the sorting, stacking, and counting of 2.9 million paper ballots. We expect confirmation that the vast majority of ballots unambiguously reflect a selection of one of the candidates, or no vote at all. We expect a tiny percentage of ballots marked in a way that the optical scanners cannot determine the voter’s intent, which could change the outcome given the miniscule margin. Any programming errors, software glitches or clerical errors in reporting vote totals will be caught and corrected by the manual recount.
Be careful not to yawn and fail to recognize that the effort and detailed care is necessary, even if the outcome doesn’t change – there is no other way to be confident in the results of this race. It is not that a systematic review is required because we distrust the election system. Rather, a systematic review is required because we care enough about this important process to be as certain as possible.
Mark Halvorson is Director of Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota. David Klein is Elections Operations Specialist formerly with the Ohio Secretary of State. Pamela Smith is President of the Verified Voting Foundation.
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