Explainer: Could Emmer's possible 'overvote' claim swing the election?

Republican Tom Emmer suggested Tuesday that there could be an overvote big enough to change the results in the governor's race. An overvote happens when there are more votes than the total number of voters.

You can listen to or read about Emmer's claims here. We've also summarized his arguments below, along with an explanation from election officials about whether there could be an overvote in the 2010 election.

Democrat Mark Dayton leads Emmer by 8,770 votes, and the state Canvassing Board has called for a recount. It'd be difficult for Emmer to make up the difference in the recount, so he and the Republican Party are looking at issues in the voting process that could be the basis for a lawsuit challenging the results.

Why is Emmer talking about an overvote?

Republican Tom Emmer says election officials need to verify that the number of ballots counted in the Minnesota governor's race matches the number of people who voted in the election. Emmer suspects there are more votes than voters because of a 2009 newspaper article about the state's voter registration database.

That Star Tribune article said the number of Minnesotans listed as voting in the 2008 election -- according to the state's voter database -- was smaller than the number of votes counted in the U.S. Senate recount.

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Ritchie told the Star Tribune there was a discrepancy of about 30,000 voters in May 2009.

Were there 30,000 fraudulent votes in the 2008 Senate race?

The Secretary of State's office says that's not what it means at all. Spokesman John Aiken says the database is not intended to be a perfect reflection of the number of people who voted in the election.

Joe Mansky, a former assistant secretary of state who now oversees elections in Ramsey County, said the database isn't used to verify the number of voters who voted in an election. Officials do that by hand on election night. Mansky said the Legislature would have to change the law to instruct election officials to use the registration database to canvass results.

While the manual process of comparing the number of ballots to the number of voters almost always reveals discrepancies, they're small in number. In Ramsey County, for example, Mansky says the difference is five.

Why were the database numbers so far off?

There are a variety of reasons. One big factor was the recount itself. Local election officials delayed entering data into the system, because of the demands of the recount and the subsequent legal challenges.

For instance, Minnesotans living permanently overseas aren't recorded as voting in the database, according to Aiken. There aren't many voters who fit that description, though.

Aiken also said it's possible clerical errors played a role in the discrepancy.

What's the purpose of the database?

The database is used to track registered voters in Minnesota.

Passed in the wake of the 2000 Bush v. Gore presidential election, the federal Help America Vote Act set national standards for election procedures. One requirement was that each state create a database to track voter registrations.

Minnesota was one of the first states to do so. It launched the Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS) in 2004.

"In election world, that is not an enormously long time to have a system in place," Hennepin County Elections Manager Rachel Smith said.

The system got off to a rocky start, with election officials complaining about frequent glitches. Then-Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, a Republican, had to defend the system in a legislative hearing just a month before election day that first year.

But Smith says, while the database still isn't perfect, it has seen steady improvement.

"We really are getting a lot better in terms of using this new statewide voter registration system to really make sure that those numbers are matching," Smith said.

When will we know how closely the 2010 numbers match?

State law says election official have until Dec. 15 to update the database, but they are allowed to request an extension. Emmer says he will examine the database at that time for evidence of excess votes in the 2010 election. But Smith says she will likely request extra time, due to the recount. Many counties did that in 2008. And Hennepin County has about 60,000 newly registered voters to enter into the system.

Could Emmer file a lawsuit after the recount claiming an overvote?

Yes. But it's uncertain whether such a lawsuit could delay the seating of the new governor.

The recount will begin on Nov. 29 and should be complete by Dec. 15. It will review the actual ballots cast on Election Day. Emmer has acknowledged that it's unlikely the recount itself will yield a different result, but he's not ruling out bringing up the overvote issue in court after the recount. There's dispute over whether Gov. Tim Pawlenty would remain governor during a pending lawsuit.