DFL candidate Al Franken is trailing Republican incumbent U.S. Senator Norm Coleman by just 206 votes in the race for the U.S. Senate. To determine the winner, election officials will recount by hand all 2.9 million ballots cast in Minnesota. The counting, in 87 counties across the state, is predicted to takes weeks. Univ. of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs says it won't be easy.
"This is hard work. Counting, by hand, 2.9 million ballots is not a picnic," said Jacobs. "It's a lot of daily drudgery of holding up the ballots and putting them into piles: the Coleman pile and the Franken pile, the disputed pile and then votes for other candidates."
Jacobs says having volunteers from both sides observe the count helps ensure the process is fair. There is a lot riding on the job, because volunteers can dispute any ballots where the intended vote is unclear. Disputed ballots go before the State Canvassing Board, which will then decide whether the ballots are included in the final tally.
Both campaigns say many of their volunteers are loyal supporters, committed to seeing the election through to the end no matter how long it takes. Hundreds of them showed up for the Franken campaign's trainings this weekend. GOP officials say they've also had no trouble filling hundreds of slots.
Neither campaign allowed the news media to observe the trainings, but officials say they focused on what to look for and how to spot potential ballot problems.
Coleman supporter Renee Golinvaux from Prior Lake says she's confident that the partisan bickering that has plagued the contentious race won't poison the recount.
"We all want the same goal," said Golinvaux. "We just want this to come to an end, and we want it to be transparent and fair. We might want a different person to win in the end, but no matter what side you are on, we do share a common goal."
The small business owner says volunteering with the Coleman campaign has been a great opportunity to be involved in the democratic process.
Thirty-two-year-old Minneapolis resident Marshall Lichty voted for Franken. But in a cafe after his training, he says that's not what motivated him to volunteer.
"This is the making of a democracy. If people's votes aren't counted the way they intended the vote to be counted, we are doing a disservice, not only to ourselves and to the voters, but really to the core of our democracy," said Lichty. "I believe that. It's high minded and philosophical, but that is the truth. By voting every November, we are supporting an idea, and if people are not there to hold us accountable to that idea it will wither. That is why I'm doing it."
He says the winner is less important than the fairness of the recount process itself. Both campaigns spent the weekend accusing the other side of unfair tactics. But Larry Jacobs says there is no reason to worry about that. He says the state has a history of transparent elections and there is no reason to expect anything less this time.
"The best way to tackle the sense of paranoia and suspicion that we have both in the Coleman and in the Franken campaigns is to open the doors, open the windows and let the volunteers come and watch as the campaign workers across Minnesota get down to work."
The process won't be observed just by volunteers from the campaigns. A number of non-partisan watchdog groups will also be watching. The recount is expected to be complete by mid-December, but with tensions high and additional legal challenges possible, there is no telling how long it could drag on.