Posted by Brad @ 5:25 pm on November 26th 2008

Coleman-Franken Minnesota Recount Update

So, this Minnesota Senate race is turning into one of the marquee recount fights of modern politics, second only to the 2000 Florida presidential race one, but much more clean.

We’re nearing the end of the first recount phase, and Coleman’s lead has actually expanded to 238 votes, with two caveats that render that meaningless: 1. Nobody seems to know exactly what that lead is. That number is according to the Secretary of State’s office, but that actually might not be the most reliable source for a number of reasons.

2. The lead right now is as much a function of ballot challenges—and Coleman is challenging a lot more—than actual votes gained. Nate Silver, among others, have suggested that, as such, the lead is enormously artificial, more a PR thing (“we won the recount”) in preparation for the rulings on the contested ballots, where Franken will undoubtedly gain significant ground and may well take the lead. But an effective PR thing; the Coleman people can claim they won the election, they won the first recount, and it was only “election officials” who turned it to Franken. Which is disingenuous to say the least, but that’s how the game is played.

In any case, Franken’s camp still maintains it’s down to double digits. They claim Coleman leads by 84, however that is on the assumption that all Coleman challenges will be rejected. Most probably will be, but not all. So the real lead may be somewhere in the 125-150 range.

As the recount winds down, presently at issue is what to do with more than 12,000 rejected absentee ballots. The Coleman campaign says, basically, “burn them; they were rejected.” The Franken campaign demands they be sifted through and challenged as well, and very likely, if that were done, Franken would win (even if 95% of them were indeed rejected, that 5% may well be enough, and most figure Franken has an edge (though no idea who significant) on absentee ballots). Today, the Minnesota Canvassing Board sided with Coleman, although in so doing they bent over backwards to indicate that they were not necessarily the final word on the subject.

Franken has two outs. Nate Silver (sorry for the extensive quote, Nate!):

The first is that the Canvassing Board will reconvene next week to consider a proposal to have county officials sort through their absentee ballots to determine which absentee ballots appeared to have no valid reason for rejection — a so-called “fifth pile” of ballots, as there are four valid criteria in Minnesota for rejecting absentees. The Canvassing Board could then rule that ballots in the fifth pile be counted. The Franken campaign seems inclined to let this process play out for now; in the meantime, at least one county (Itasca) appears as though it may re-evaluate the rejected absentee ballots on its own, without awaiting instructions from the state.

The second mechanism would be to do the good, old-fashioned American thing and sue. It is quite likely that the Franken campaign will sue if the Canvassing Board does not mandate that the “fifth pile” ballots be counted; the reporters at The Uptake think such a lawsuit would have a fair chance of prevailing.

The St. Paul Pioneer press reports that about 12,000 absentee ballots were rejected statewide. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of these were rejected for valid reasons, but reviews of such ballots in counties like Ramsey (St. Paul) have revealed that material numbers were rejected due to human error, and Minnesota’s Secretary of State, Mark Ritchie, has estimated that between 500 and 1,000 absentees were rejected improperly.

The behavior of both the Coleman and Franken campaigns would suggest that Franken stands to gain if these absentee ballots are reconsidered, but the extent of the potential gain is hard to determine. In late October, a Public Policy Polling survey showed Al Franken with an 8-point lead over Norm Coleman among persons who had already voted, although that survey slightly overestimated Franken’s support overall. Most likely, Franken would stand to add a vote for somewhere between 1 in every 10 improperly rejected absentee ballots, and 1 in every 20. Given this range and the estimate of improperly rejected absentees provided by Ritchie, that would suggest that Franken campaign stands to gain a net of somewhere between 25 and 100 votes if these ballots are in fact counted by the state.

The Minnesota recount has so far been a model of fairness and attempting to precision. That said, this is going to come down to dirty boxing on every single ballot. Franken, for his part, seems disinclined to make the Al Gore mistake of respecting the process too much, and is going to be leaning on the system just as much as Coleman promises too. However, unlike Florida (where, I believe, more people showed up that day to vote for Gore than to vote for Bush), it’s unclear that Franken actually has more votes and just has to win. It really is pretty much dead even, to a ballot, and the margin is going to solely be a function of ballot challenges. I.e. there is no objective “count” here; how this race comes will solely be a function of subjectivity. MN officials feeling like they want to close this thing up, Coleman could justifiably win by 250. MN officials feeling like they want to be generous and liberal in terms of how they judge things, Franken could justifiably win by 100. If you’re a betting man, the truth probably comes somewhere in the middle—-that “Coleman by 84″ish margin that the Franken camp sees. But this is not a race to be betting on.


  1. Some possible news here.

    Al Franken’s campaign is “disappointed” that as many as 12,000 absentee ballots will not be counted in Minnesota’s hotly contested Senate race but will not appeal the decision.

    On Wednesday the state Board of Canvassers unanimously rejected Franken’s (D) request to count those ballots.

    Comment by Cameron — 11/26/2008 @ 9:47 pm

  2. Yeah, that’s the news I was referring to. Not sure what the “will not appeal” thing means.

    Comment by Brad — 11/26/2008 @ 10:04 pm

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