Minnesota Republicans, still stinging from a loss in the ultra-close 2008 Senate race, are waging an aggressive push to recruit election judges for this year's races.
Party chairman Tony Sutton calls it a ballot-box "line of defense" to guard against what Republicans saw as vote-counting flaws that favored Democrat Al Franken in his 312-vote win. A central theme of then-Sen. Norm Coleman's legal challenge was that election judges in Democratic strongholds were less likely to reject absentee ballots than in Republican-leaning areas.
Laws enacted since 2008 should make for fewer subjective decisions at polling places.
Still, the Republican Party's goal is to find 12,000 people willing to serve across 4,100 precincts, ahead of a May 1 deadline for submitting names. It's part of an effort Sutton described as more coordinated than an admittedly passive approach in past elections.
"It's been a failure on our party in the past to provide enough judges to the appointing authorities," Sutton said. "After that U.S. Senate election, a lot of people are motivated and willing to take a day off to do this."
The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party will continue leaving it to local party officers to identify possible judges, said state chairman Brian Melendez. He's wary of the new GOP strategy.
"The way they behaved during the 2008 recount shows me that they're not interested in a fair count," Melendez said. "They're interested in a count that favors them and getting there however they can."
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat, said Wednesday that he'll make his own public plea for would-be judges next week. He said he's not concerned by the GOP campaign, saying Minnesota election-judge tradition has been one of "respectful partisanship."
"Their role is to help each and every citizen no matter their affiliation or lack thereof," Ritchie said. "The position itself inside the polling place is very nonpartisan and very Minnesota neighborly." Election judges have a range of duties, from registering voters who sign up on Election Day to distributing ballots to tabulating and transmitting results once polls close. The paid positions are open to U.S. citizens eligible to vote in Minnesota who can read, write and speak English.
Their load was lightened some by law changes made this year. Now, absentee ballots will be handled by election judges that get special training and serve on centralized ballot boards, a departure from the previous practice of counting those ballots at the polling place. Absentee ballots will also get new coding to reduce reliance on signature matching, a point of contention during the Senate race.
Parties have long been involved in recruiting people to fill 30,000 election judge positions. Minnesota law strives for party balance, with a requirement that least two judges from different political parties be in polling places at all times. People without party affiliation can also serve.
Political parties submit names of their preferred election judges to local election administrators. Those officials will begin filling out their rosters next month and start required training in June.
Janet Beihoffer, who is heading the GOP's election judge effort, said the party is considering supplementing the government training with some of its own.
The state GOP began its push at precinct caucuses in February and ramped up the signup drive during last week's massive campaign rally featuring popular conservatives Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann.
There, volunteers moved through the 10,000-person crowd, handing out cards declaring "The Republican Party of Minnesota Needs YOU to be an election judge" and stressing that Democrats have outnumbered Republicans at polling places in the past.
Election supervisors in Hennepin, Ramsey and St. Louis County - three of Minnesota's most-populous counties - said they have yet to see evidence of the GOP's judge drive. But they all said they received notification from Republican Party leaders informing them of their plans.
St. Louis County elections director Paul Tynjala said officials rely on the party lists to fill vacancies but even those have shortcomings.
"Often people sign up at the caucuses and then decline to serve or have a conflict when called," Tynjala said, adding, "There is always a shortage and clerks are often scrambling to fill vacancies."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)