Balls, strikes and absentee ballots

Brian Rice
Brian F. Rice is an attorney in Minneapolis. He has been involved in 15 election recounts and four election contests, two of which went to the state Supreme Court.
Submitted photo

Tuesday's Minnesota Supreme Court decision in Coleman v. Franken was consistent with Minnesota election law. To put it in terms that baseball fans may appreciate, the court ruled that you can't argue balls and strikes.

By that, I mean the court determined under existing Minnesota law that the absentee ballot decisions of local elections officials and election night judges would have to stand. The justices reaffirmed a long history, dating back well over a century, of how elections are administered in this state.

The court and the Legislature have always understood that any human endeavor will be imperfect. That is a hard lesson for anyone to accept. But it is a necessary reality when human beings are involved in any enterprise.

On most summer nights in this country, there are 15 Major League Baseball games being played, and 15 separate umpires behind home plate making the calls. The rules in baseball are the same, but the application of those rules will vary from ballpark to ballpark, because of who is behind the plate. And on any given night, there will be 15 different strike zones.

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Yet baseball, perhaps our most uniform and calibrated sport, with a statistic percentage or average for every conceivable action, is in fact an imperfect human endeavor. The record books will reflect balls and strikes, hits and outs, but on any given night there can be subtle and important variations in those calls.

Minnesota has more than 4,000 precincts, tens of thousands of election judges, and more than 100 separate election administrators in our 87 counties and scores of cities that run statewide elections.

On Election Day, all of those administrators and judges did their best. They made calls on absentee ballots and counted the vast majority of those ballots.

Some of these ballots did not meet the strict standards of the law, but they were counted anyway because a judge let them in the ballot pile. Significantly, the court found that Coleman offered no proof of a pattern of unfair counting; it's just what happens.

After the election, a second round of counting occurred. The State Canvassing Board allowed some additional absentee ballots to be brought in. By agreement of the parties, 933 such absentee ballots were counted. A third counting happened at the trial court.

At each of these stages, the Supreme Court affirmed the decisions. Cumulatively, this resulted in the 312-vote win for Al Franken.

It's an imperfect world, and people make mistakes. The Supreme Court made an important point -- there were no allegations of fraud in this case. Absent fraud, we are dealing with people.

While I have watched plenty of baseball games and have seen umpires make absolutely outrageous calls, I have learned that it is part of the sport, and that to change the practice would destroy a game that we have all come to love. I've also learned that bad calls almost always even themselves out.

Al Franken's term will pass much more quickly than we all can imagine. Life will go on in this state and the country. We need good public servants to do these jobs. But the most important thing is to have someone doing the jobs.

Brian F. Rice is an attorney in Minneapolis. He has been involved in 15 election recounts and four election contests, two of which went to the state Supreme Court.

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