State Canvassing Board makes progress on challenged ballots

Mark Ritchie and the State Canvassing Board
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, along with the rest of the members of the State Canvassing Board, held a meeting to certify results from Election Day, and call for a recount in the U.S. Senate race.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Most, but not all, of the challenges were rejected. The board is examining each challenged ballot, and voting on whether to accept or reject the challenge.

The process is scheduled to continue through Friday. Once the board finishes with the Franken challenges, it will start reviewing the ballots challenged by Republican Senator Norm Coleman's campaign. The Coleman campaign says it will challenge about 1,000 ballots.

Initially, Ritchie's schedule to examine all of the ballots seemed optimistic considering the campaigns challenged 6,655 ballots. But, after some mild prodding and a verbal scolding or two, the campaigns have dropped thousands of their challenges.

It now appears that the board will be forced to review no more than 1,500 ballots. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said the five-member panel will examine each and every challenge to determine which candidate received a vote.

"This is about the State Canvassing Board deciding the voter's intent and we either have a large number or a smaller number of a shrinking number of those to review and we will do that really directly," Ritchie said.

Ritchie chairs the canvassing board, which also includes two Minnesota Supreme Court justices and two Ramsey County judges. Ritchie said they haven't decided the ground rules for reviewing the ballots. First on the agenda is determining the total number of challenged ballots and dividing it by four - the goal for each day.

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Once they get to work, Ritchie said they'll create three piles. One for Coleman, one for Franken and a third pile for other candidates or ballots where they can't determine a voter's intent.

"This is about the State Canvassing Board deciding the voter's intent..."

"If you cannot determine voter intent, that's very simple, it goes in the other pile," Ritchie said.

The goal is to determine the winner in Minnesota's Senate contest. Before the recount started, Coleman was leading Franken by 215 votes. At the end of the day Monday, his lead stood at 188 votes but that number will continue to fluctuate as the Secretary of State's office adjusts the challenges that have been withdrawn. Ritchie said it will be simple to determine voter intent on many of the ballots.

"I'm looking for five to zero votes," Ritchie said. "I mean these are no-brainers. You guys have looked at them on the website."

Edward Foley is an elections law expert at Ohio State University. Foley has been keeping close tabs on Minnesota's recount and has been impressed with how the board has ruled unanimously.

"The first that I'll be looking for is, can they maintain that unanimity?" he said.

Foley said any disagreements over voter intent could slow down the process and create public skepticism if the disagreements are constant among the members.

"If there's a significant number of ballots that they disagree on, that sets the situation up for more litigation and a court fight in a very different posture," Foley said. "On the other hand, the more likely that this board is unanimous for the more difficult ballots that come before them, the harder it would be for the court to overturn that."

Foley said he'll also be watching the Minnesota Supreme Court because the fate of as many as 1,500 wrongly rejected absentee ballots could also determine the winner. Last week, the canvassing board requested that local elections officials reexamine rejected absentee ballots and count any votes that were wrongly set aside.

The Coleman campaign wants Minnesota's high court to stop the counting until a uniform standard is created for determining ballots that were wrongly set aside. The court has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday, but it isn't clear if a decision will come before the canvassing board finishes its work.

When asked if he was willing to wait until the court rules and the votes are counted, Secretary of State Ritchie said: "I don't know what would be the pleasure of my colleagues, but we'll certainly talk about this. I won't ask them to sign something until we know we're as accurate as we can be. We will know a tremendous amount by Friday night."

Even if the canvassing board finishes its work and certifies a winner, that doesn't mean the issue is over. An election contest can be filed in court up to seven days after the election is certified. That would throw the election into court, with a special three-judge panel deciding what to do next.