Election officials, observers keep trudging through the recount

The lobby outside the Ramsey County recount
The lobby outside the Ramsey County recount room is filled with coffee, breakfast food, and campaign supporters.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

As an election judge, Diane Follmer's job is to count sorted ballots and place them in stacks of 25. And sometimes, the counting takes over her verbal skills.

"You begin to speak in numbers. When someone at the table sneezed yesterday, instead of saying 'Gesundheit,' I said, 'Seventeen.'"

No one said democracy was a breeze. But Follmer says she has perfected her system for performing the mundane, yet necessary, task of making sure every vote counts.

Election judge Diane Follmer
Election judge Diane Follmer says she sometimes counts to herself in French to keep it fun and interesting.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

What's her secret? The rubber finger -- you know, those grippy thumb caps favored by postal workers and secretaries. Follmer likes to wear four of them -- two for her thumbs and the other two for her middle fingers.

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"This is an election-recount manicure: rubber finger, fingernail, rubber finger, fingernail, fingernail. It's a very individualized use of fingers. It happens to be these two for me," said Follmer.

Rick Winters, holding up his index fingers, said, "I've been doing it this way, with one on each finger this way."

Winters is another St. Paul election judge who works side by side with Follmer. Everyone at their table has developed their own tricks to chase away the doldrums.

"At our table, when we get bored, we count first in English and then in French. ... We have to make it a fun process. It's an important process, but we have to have some enjoyment along the way," said Follmer.

Elections judges in Ramsey County
Ramsey County Election judges Rick Winters and Diane Follmer count sorted ballots on the third day of the Senate recount. They say they have their own unique systems for how they wear the "rubber fingers."
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

But once at work, they're all business.

Election judges say they don't do it for the money, or for the glory. Judges in Ramsey County are paid $8 to $12 an hour, depending on their duties. And they had every reason to believe their work would be done on Election Night.

Ramsey County Elections Director Joe Mansky says his staff and judges have put in long hours, but he hopes the opportunity to participate in a historic recount will help them overcome any fatigue.

"The general election is like the Super Bowl for us. And if you want to look at in that way, (with) this recount, we are now in sudden-death overtime," said Mansky.

A ballot challenged by the Coleman campaign
A Coleman volunteer contested this ballot marked for Franken because the voter did not stay within the oval line. On Day 3 of the recount, campaigns were clearly stepping up their challenges in a game of tit-for-tat. The Coleman supporter said the voter's intent was not clear, and that his challenge was consistent with the kinds of challenges made by the Franken camp on Thursday.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Indeed, it's a game where everyone wants to know the outcome.

In a lounge area outside the recount room, dozens of supporters and staff for Al Franken and Norm Coleman are reading newspapers, typing on their laptops or even knitting.

These folks are the subs, the bench warmers. They're waiting to spring into action when their peers come out for a break.

Inside the recount room, election observers are clearly engaged in a high-stakes game of tit-for-tat. In one corner, a Coleman supporter stopped an election official as she placed a ballot into the Franken pile.

"I'm going to challenge this, because he challenged one exactly like that," said the Coleman observer.

Signed ballot
This Ramsey County ballot was challenged because the voter appeared to have written signatures on the ballot. Minnesota law does not allow voters to make 'distinguishing marks' on their ballots. [MPR has blacked-out the signature to respect the voter's privacy.]
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"What's the reason for your challenge," asked the election official.

"Voter intent," replied the Coleman observer.

"The intent on this ballot is clear," replied the election official.

"Outside-the-line voter intent," replied the observer.

That's right: "Outside-the-line voter intent." A new term coined by the Great Minnesota Recount.

He wasn't the only one taking issue with voters who colored outside the lines. On the other side of the room, a Franken observer was challenging a poorly filled oval. (She told an election official, "It's beyond the distinguishing oval.")

But at most tables, the only sounds to be heard were those of papers shuffling and civil discourse.

"It's probably the funnest, mind-numbing experience you'll ever have," said Franken volunteer Eric Margolis.

Margolis says participating in the recount has given him a rare behind-the-scenes look into the electoral process.

"It's really interesting to see Minnesotans from this perspective, because they all have their unique way of voting. They don't just fill in the circle. Sometimes they put Xes in the circles, sometimes they put check marks in the circles. They don't put circles in the circles. If they did all the time, perhaps things like this wouldn't happen," said Margolis.

Margolis says he worked hard to get out the vote before the election and saw the recount effort as an opportunity for him to help preserve those votes.

Marge Case feels the same way. But she's rooting for Norm Coleman.

"I started as a resident of Lowertown St. Paul, where there's 5 to 10 Republicans. I got very lonesome, my husband and I, and we found the Republican Party of St. Paul. We joined it, and the rest is history," said Case.

And now that it's sudden death overtime, Case says it's time to step up. She says a lot is at stake, including Minnesota's reputation for clean elections. And so far, she hasn't been disappointed.