smfranken.jpgNovember 14, 2008
Can someone figure this out?
A Changed Election?

Comedian turned Democratic politician Al Franken had little to laugh about on Election night.  By dawn the next morning — after all of the votes were supposedly counted in his race against Republican Norm Coleman for one of Minnesota’s U.S. Senate seats — the returns showed that Franken had lost narrowly by just 725 votes.

Coleman’s slim margin of victory meant that there will be an automatic statewide recount.  But that’s the part of this story yet to come.  The recount hasn’t even begun — and won’t until later next week — nevertheless Franken has already closed the gap convincingly.

Indeed, Franken must be more than amused now because, in the week following the election, Senator Coleman’s initial lead has all but evaporated — without any significant stashes of uncounted ballots being uncovered or rejected votes being tallied.

By the night after the election, Franken’s deficit had shrunk by more than a third, so that only 477 votes separated the comic from being able to dazzle C-SPAN audiences by delivering his standup routine from the floor of the U.S. Senate.  A day later, Coleman’s lead took another hit, meaning that it now amounted to less than half the initial margin, down to 336 votes.  Last Friday turned the tables nearly another hundred votes, so that Franken then trailed by just 239 votes.  The weekend and a government holiday didn’t stop the change.

By late Sunday night, another 18 votes were shaved off, lowering Coleman’s margin of, by then, less-than-apparent victory to 221.  Several days later, on Veteran’s Day, Franken had closed the gap even further so that only 206 votes separated him from inauguration day.

All of this has been especially puzzling to election observers because, as previously noted, Franken hasn’t yet been the beneficiary of a recount that finds large numbers of previously uncounted votes or that tallies significant figures from earlier machine-rejected ballots.  Rather, as University of Maryland research scholar John Lott Jr. wrote in a column that appeared Monday, Franken’s fortunes have risen as “local election officials correct[ed] claimed typos in how the numbers were reported.”

That has raised an awful lot of questions about what is adding up to be all but the margin of victory.

You see, “[c]orrections were posted in other races, but they were only a fraction of those for the Senate,” Lott explained.  “The Senate gains for Franken were 2.5 times the gain for Obama in the presidential race count, 2.9 times the total gain that Democrats got across all Minnesota congressional races, and 5 times the net loss that Democrats suffered for all state [h]ouse races.”

Indeed, the 500-plus vote swing in favor of Franken “is greater than adding together all the changes for all the precincts in the entire state for the presidential, congressional, and state house races combined (a sum of 482),” Lott noted.

Raising even more questions, “[v]irtually all of Franken’s new votes came in just three out of 4130 precincts, and almost half the gain (246 votes) occurred in just one precinct — Two Harbors, a small town north of Duluth along Lake Superior,” Lott explained.  “None of the other races had any changes in their vote totals in that precinct,” he added.

All of this led Lott to observe that, while the “Minneapolis Star Tribune attributed these types of [reporting] mistakes to ‘exhausted county officials,’ … the sizes of the errors in these three precincts are surprisingly large.”

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page escalated the questions that naturally arise from what everyone has seen over the last week in Minnesota.

“[I]t isn’t unusual for officials to report that they transposed a number here or there,” the Journal acknowledged.  But “[i]n a normal audit, these mistakes could be expected to cut both ways,” the editorial continued.  “Instead, nearly every ‘fix’ has gone for Mr. Franken, in some cases under strange circumstances.”

Which brings us, finally, to the recount that will begin next week.

The conclusion of the Journal editorial was an admonition that, “[i]f Minnesota wants to retain its reputation as a state with clean elections, it needs to run an honest recount.”  That really should be straightforward because, as Lott pointed out, recounting the Minnesota vote in 2008 won’t be like recounting the Florida vote in 2000.

Unlike the punchcards used by Florida eight years ago, Minnesotans cast their votes using optical scan ballots.  This is significant because optical scan machines have some vote-proofing qualities that ensure against mistakenly cast undervotes or overvotes.

“Voters themselves insert[ed] their ballots into the machine that reads and records their votes, and if the machine finds that a vote isn’t recorded, voters can either mark the race that they forgot to mark or didn’t mark clearly,” Lott explained.  “Or if voters ‘overvoted’ and accidentally marked too many candidates, voters can also get a fresh ballot.  There should be no role to divine voters’ intentions.  If a voter wanted a vote recorded for a particular race, the machine tells him whether his vote in all the races was counted.”

In other words, the Minnesota recount of 2008 needn’t look anything like the Florida recount of 2000.  Judges shouldn’t be examining ballots to guess whether the voter had attempted to vote for Franken, and lawyers shouldn’t be arguing that rejected ballots should be counted based on such mixed signals.  The optical scan machines already gave the voters that second chance, which the voter didn’t take if the ballot got cast anyway.

This isn’t to say anyone thinks the recount won’t devolve into such machinations.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a headline Tuesday noting that both candidates were “[g]etting all lawyered up for [the] Senate recount.”  After all, since election officials have already corrected away more than two-thirds of Coleman’s initial margin of victory, it has become a lot more believable to Franken that he can finish changing the election results so long as he tries.