A recount to make Minnesota proud

Mark Ritchie
Mark Ritchie is Minnesota's Secretary of State.
Photo courtesy of the Secretary of State's office

The Great Minnesota Recount is over, and today Al Franken will assume his seat as our junior senator. When I placed my signature on the certificate of election that concluded our 2008 U.S. Senate race, I could hear a collective sigh of relief from my fellow secretaries of state from around the country.

They were worried. The federal election battles in Florida and Ohio in 2000 and 2004 had done considerable damage to the reputation of election officials and the public's trust in the validity of our elections. There was a sense of hope that the recount in Minnesota could begin to repair some of that damage and restore faith in our electoral institutions. I believe Minnesota has set a new standard of excellence not only in how we administer elections, but also in how we conduct fair and transparent recounts. I am not alone in that belief.

Much of the credit for the success of the recount goes to the Minnesota lawmakers and elected officials who crafted our elections system and recount procedures. We vote on paper ballots that can be easily recounted by hand. We conduct recounts in full public view with participation from the political parties. We trust our local election officials to carry out the actual counting of ballots. We appoint a State Canvassing Board to preside over the recount and to review any challenged ballots. We allow candidates to contest the results of a recount if they feel they have not been fairly served by the process.

Equally important as our procedures are the thousands of citizens who participate in the process. From the 30,000 Minnesotans who serve as poll workers each election to the thousands of volunteers who served as partisan challengers, we have the highly motivated citizenry necessary to conduct an election and recount. This level of public interest not only ensures that every step of the electoral process is conducted in a transparent way, but also encourages our state to collectively own and engage in our democracy. While Minnesotans were divided on who was the best candidate for U.S. Senator in the race, there was an overwhelming sense that everyone wanted the recount to be conducted in an orderly and civil fashion. Lost in all the hype surrounding the ongoing fight was that in 99.99 percent of the ballots reviewed, the representatives from the two campaigns -- no shrinking violets, I assure you -- agreed with the local election officials' determination of voter intent. In the end, out of 2.92 million ballots cast in the election, only 14 of the ballots were truly disputed. These 14 votes were awarded to the candidates as the result of 3-2 votes by the State Canvassing Board; some of them were awarded to Sen. Norm Coleman and some were awarded to Franken.

Minnesota has led the way in demonstrating that you can have a contentious race and a close election and still be able to conduct a recount in a way that keeps the public informed and encourages trust in the outcome.

The 2008 U.S. Senate election has now reached its conclusion, but the most important part of this experience is still to come. We need to take the lessons learned as a result of this process and use them to further improve our already strong elections system:

Implementing early voting can greatly eliminate the number of people casting absentee ballots and thus reduce the number of rejected absentee ballots.

We can streamline our absentee balloting system to simplify the process for voters and save local election officials time and money.

We can cross-check our voter registration database with information from the Social Security Administration and Department of Corrections to make sure our voting lists are as up-to-date and accurate as possible.

We can move the state's primary to an earlier date to ensure that our military personnel overseas have an opportunity to get their ballot back in time to be counted.

All of the above measures were passed by the Legislature this spring but subsequently vetoed.

It is my hope that with the conclusion of the 2008 election there will be a renewed sense of urgency to enact changes that will help us continue to be a national leader in conducting elections. With 483 days to go until the 2010 election, there is not a minute to waste.

Mark Ritchie, DFL, is Minnesota's secretary of state.

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