Recount may be inevitable, election officials say

A Coleman representative watches the recount
A representative from the Coleman Campaign watches as ballots are being counted in St. Paul, Minn. November 20, 2008.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

Brace yourself for the return of the Lizard People write-in vote, the rejected absentee ballot and the three-judge panel.

Those highlights from the Senate race two years ago may be getting ready for an encore in what will likely be a recount of the gubernatorial election, starting as soon as Nov 29.

With 8,855 votes separating the two leading major party candidates, election officials think another recount may be inevitable.

This time, both sides are spoiling for a fight. State GOP chairman Tony Sutton said Republicans would be taking the offensive.

"You know what? It's our turn," Sutton said. "It's our turn to overturn every stone, looking at the votes. And we're going to be, like I said, very vigilant, very aggressive."

The leading candidate, Democratic nominee Mark Dayton, said he didn't think that would make a difference.

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"I mean, we have a standard here in Minnesota," Dayton said. "This is not Florida. This is not some other part of the country where elections get manipulated after the polls have closed. This is Minnesota."

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But the process will find its own course.

Here's how a recount this year likely will be similar to the one two years ago:

In the days ahead, county elections officials will be double checking their numbers. They will likely finish by next Friday.

County auditors and election managers will then forward their results to be reviewed and certified by the state canvassing board.

That will include Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justices Paul H. Anderson and David R. Stras; Judge Denise Reilly from Minneapolis and Judge Gregg Johnson from St. Paul. They'll meet Nov. 23.

If they find a winning margin of less than about 10,500 votes, it will trigger an automatic recount.

At that point, officials at about 100 sites may start counting ballots again, by hand, and send those recount totals to the state. Again.

Any disputes can be addressed by the canvassing board. They'll certify the result and name a winner -- possibly by January, when Gov. Tim Pawlenty is scheduled to leave office.

Once the election is certified, though, either party can file a special lawsuit, called an election contest. That took six months to resolve by state courts in 2009.

This time is likely to be very different.

For one thing, the state has changed how votes are counted. Absentee ballots are now counted by election officials in one place -- instead of at different polling places. That could eliminate some inconsistencies found in 2008.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said the Legislature took some other steps, too.

"For example, we have a three-week time period before the state canvassing board to give us more time. Lot of clarification on things that would be considered frivolous challenges in the last recount have been clarified and will not be allowed," he said.

HENNEPIN VOTE ERROR

But there are new questions. Republicans are calling a 400,000 vote computer error in Hennepin County suspicious.

"We did have a period of time for about 45 minutes, where we had a reporting error," said Rachel Smith, the county's election director. "We immediately corrected the situation and corrected the files."

Republican lawyer Tony Trimble said the party is better prepared for a recount this year.

"In 2008 we didn't have the data to actually assess who the voters were, where they were," Trimble said. "They were finding votes. We were ahead. This situation is reversed. They're trying to stop the train. We're the train."

But even some Republicans are conceding that changing 8,855 votes is a long way to go, considering the 2008 totals changed by only 950 votes in the end.