December 2008

How the Court Stole Christmas

Friday, December 19th, 2008

With apologies to Dr. Seuss:

All the Whos down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot,
But the Court in St. Paul very clearly did not.

“We’ve got to stop Christmas from coming somehow,”
Said the Court as it ruled that the Whos must be fooled.

Then the justices had an awful idea,
A scary and maybe unlawful idea.

“Let’s make them keep working and fighting all season,
“Let’s just keep them squabbling ‘till they lose touch with reason!’’

And the thought gave the Court a warm lawyerly feeling,
While reporters in Whoville just about hit the ceiling…

They’re baaaaack…..

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

4:49 p.m.:

The board has recessed for hte day, but the relief of a job well done was short-lived. When the board reconvened, its members waded into the thorny question of how they should deal with ballots that the Coleman campaign contends were counted twice; his legal team estimates the number of ballots at roughly 150 statewide. Members spent a good 45 minutes wrestling with the issue, concluding they’d best sleep on it.

Initially, board members merely wanted some clarification on an issue they planned to fully air out tomorrow, but the discussion quickly plunged deep into the weeds. Coleman attorney Tony Trimble explained that double-counting occurred on Election Night when poll workers duplicated ballots that were damaged in such a way that they could not be read by voting machines and that when the number of duplicates and originals don’t match up, it would be the basis for a challenge by the campaign. Franken attorney Marc Elias countered that the Coleman position was merely “a theory” and said untangling the issue was well beyond the purview of the canvassing board (a position echoed by several board members).

“If you want to litigate, you go to court, you don’t come here,” said Chief Justice Eric Magnuson. “It’s just a question of forums — not here,” said District Judge Edward Cleary.

Board members also expressed irritation at the fact that early in this entire process, both campaigns agreed that in disputes over duplicate ballots, the original ballot would prevail, but Trimble said the possibility of double-counting arose after that agreement was reached.

Mark Ritchie said professionals on his staff anticipated a problem such as the one being raised by Coleman’s team and that they are “not happy” it’s being raised now. “[You're asking us] to settle a question you raised very late and a lot of legal paper came to us late — like a blizzard,” he said.

In the end, board members decided not to decide on the double-counting issue. “It sounds like we kind of need to sleep on it,” said District Judge Kathleen Gearin.

“Or stay up all night and read everything,” Magnuson said, referring to the blizzard. “Whichever way we go, it’s going to be flawed,” he added.

3:48 p.m.:

The board finishes assessing Franken’s challenges. “Am I correct we’ve completed Franken?” Ritchie asked someone incredulously.
They took a break, giving the Secretary of State’s staff time to check on the status of the sorting of Coleman’s challenges.
Final, unofficial, tally of Franken’s 414 challenges:
233 allocated to Coleman
64 allocated to Franken
117 allocated to neither/other

3:39 p.m.:

Closing in on the last of Franken’s challenges, someone suggests a brief break for the board, but Mark Ritchie, waves it off, saying “are we really three votes from done?” “Define done,” replied an unidentified member of the board.

2:55 p.m.:

Current unofficial challenge update:
Allocated to Coleman: 209
Allocated to Franken: 55
Allocated to neither/other: 106

2:47 p.m.:

Scratching his head over an exceptionally confusing ballot, Mark Ritchie mused aloud about the voter who made the scrawls: “They weren’t thinking of us when they did this.” “It’s not about us,” another board member chimed in.

2:32 p.m.:

We checked in with some local political scientists (and admitted politics junkies) to get their top-of-mind first impressions of the proceedings so far. Initial consensus: The board’s been keeping to the straight and narrow, not overtly favoring either candidate. And based on the first few hundred challenges they’ve reviewed, it’s impossible to definitively say whether Coleman or Franken is faring better at their hands.

David Schultz, professor of public administration and management at Hamline University:

“If you watch as they individually handle each ballot, it’s a lot like watching paint dry, but if you look at it as part of a larger drama, it’s really going well. They’re going slow, but they’re resolving a lot of disputes. There seems to be a pretty good consistency to what they’re doing.

“By the end of the day yesterday, it looked like Coleman was doing a little better, but it’s really too close to call at this point. My impression is that Franken has to start making up a lot of ground here — at some point, he’s got to start winning substantially larger numbers of the challenges.

“”[The board members] seem to be playing it pretty straight up. If they were obviously biased, it would come out pretty quick in their votes.”

Kathryn Pearson, profesor of political science at the University of Minnesota:

“I’ve been home sick, but from my counch, I’ve got to say I’m impressed by the efficiency and thoughtfulness of the canvassing board. They’ve had some non-unanimous votes, and I haven’t kept track of how all of those have gone, but they seem to have taken care to be consistent in the way they look at the statute and their previous votes [on comparable ballots].

“It leaves you with the impression that if they keep this up, they’ll treat both sides equally. You can’t say yet that one or the other is doing beter yet. When the board’s had o make tough calls, they’ve looked at the statute. You can see this is not an easy job. It strikes me that whoever ends behind might be able to point at one or two votes that were taken, but not the whole process.”

Dan Hofrenning, professor of political science at St. Olaf College:

“I’ve been impressed that it’s been a pretty open, visible, straightforward process so far. They seem to be deliberating in a rational way on all these ballots. And they don’t seem to be favoring one candidate over the other.

“It’s hard to know who’s doing better than expected because you don’t know what better than expected is when you only do something like this once in a century or so. The biq question is whether Franken still have the potential to make up the gap with Coleman but until they start reviewing Coleman’s challenges, you don’t know if it’s conceivable that Franken could win. So far, there don’t seem to be a lot of split decisions, which is good for the process.”

2:10 p.m.:

As per Mark Ritchie’s announced schedule, the board members are back in their seats, ready to reconvene momentarily.

Back at the ballots, after a brief breather

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

12:38 p.m.:

Next stop, the state Supreme Court.

The canvassing board has recessed, explicitly deferring to the justices, who scheduled a 1 p.m. hearing on the Coleman camp’s request that they block counties and the Canvassing Board from counting improperly rejected absentee ballots. As many as 1,600 such ballots are at stake. The Franken campaign and the canvassing board oppose the move.

Calling the recess, Ritchie said the board appears to be on track “to complete these by the end of the day,” referring to Franken’s challenges.

Before the lawyers and journalists trooped off through the Capitol campus tunnels to the state judicial center, Ritchie suggested that the board members should reconvene at 1:45 p.m., only to be cautioned by Justice G. Barry Anderson that his fellow Supremes wouldn’t wrap up their hearing that quickly. OK, let’s make it 2:10 p.m., Ritchie said.

Current unofficial rundown:

Allocated for Coleman: 188
Alloctated for Franken: 48
Allocated for neither/other: 103

11:50 a.m.:

The straight-ahead discipline of the board has rarely dissolved into meandering chatter so far, but when it did so a moment ago, a frustrated Mark Ritchie barked, “I’m losing control — I want to kick [this] back into gear,” before announcing a challenge he said was labeled “Ramsey — uh, something.”

11:40 a.m.:

Board members were clearly mystified by a voter who cast a clear vote for Coleman, even while Xing out Franken’s space — while annotating the ballot with a flurry of commentary. “Who knows?” Kathleen Gearin asked no one in particular. “In the end, we do,” Magnuson said, in what could be construed as wishful thinking if/when the whole mess lands in court.

11:25 a.m.:

Parenthetical aside: Here’s a great mini-profile of Bert Black, the longtime legal counsel from the Secretary of State’s office, courtesy of Politics in Minnesota’s Sarah Janecek.

Meanwhile, the board soldiers on, with Ritchie admonishing his colleagues as they squabbled over a ballot, “OK, guys — it’s my job to keep things moving here.”

10:55 a.m.:

The board was presented with a genuine puzzler that put it in uncharted territory: Franken’s lawyers had challenged a vote for Coleman — but the vote was cast on a primary election ballot, not the general election ballot. “It’s an unusual situation we haven’t come across before,” Mark Ritchie said.

When one of the board’s lawyers told the members there was no governing state statute to solve the problem, one member muttered, “oh, great.” Coleman attorney Tony Trimble argued that board members couldn’t “disenfranchise a voter for the ballot [he] was given, that came from the election judges.”

The argument didn’t fly. Saying the decision in front of them “is too bad, it breaks my heart,” Ritchie moved that the ballot be sent to the “other” pile, meaning it wouldn’t count for Coleman.

A few ballots earlier, the board members tried to make sense of a ballot that had Coleman’s oval inked in and Franken’s checked. “I think it’s a yes, no, but which is which,” Chief Justice Eric Magnuson said. “That’s the problem,” another board member said. Eventually, it landed in the “other” pile.

10:42 a.m.:

The board resumed its work after a seven-minute break, called by Mark Ritchie. They promptly rejected the first ballot to confront them, one that was scribbled on by the voter. “Is it Aramaic or Hebrew?” asked Kathleen Gearin. “Yes,” one of her fellow judges quipped.

As the challenges turn, Day 2

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

10:31 a.m.:

Running (unofficial) tally, courtesy of the Strib’s crack video team, toiling in the bowels of the Capitol:

Votes reviewed: 234
Allocated to Coleman: 132
Allocated to Franken: 32
Allocated to neither/other: 70

10:18 a.m.:

One of the much-discussed “duplicate ballots” landed in the laps of the board members — and they promptly punted it into the back of the pack. Both campaigns challenged the ballot from St. Louis Park and the board members agreed it wasn’t a thicket they want to wade unti just yet.

9:32 a.m.:

Board members seem to have quickly hit their groove and are occasionally leavening their calls on the ballots with mild wisecracks. Confronted with a ballot that one member called “very odd,” District Judge Kathleen Gearin said the ballot looked “like a scribbled Mickey Mouse sideways,” marking the return of Mickey to the discussion for the second straight day. The ballot, indeed, was scribbled in an image that could be seen as a cartoon mouse. It was tossed into the unallocated pile because the voter’s intent was unclear.

A couple of ballots later, the board members were presented with a ballot that was marked squarely in between the names of Coleman and Franken. “That could have been intentional,” Ritchie cracked. No voter intent discernible, the members ruled.

9:23 a.m.:

To the audible relief of board members, Franken’s attorneys withdrew one of their challenges.

9:15 a.m.:

Voting resumes, with the first Franken challenge of the morning rejected and the ballot placed in the pile where the voter’s intent couldn’t be determined.

Before they got underway, board members gave the candidates’ attorneys an earful about a discussion that will be undertaken tomorrow at the opening of the third session. Supreme Court Justice G. Barry Anderson brought up the issue of duplicate ballots, which as been one of the Coleman campaign’s side issues. He asked, rhetorically, why the board needs to resolve the question of duplicates at all, much less what relief the Coleman campaign is seeking. “Why isn’t it appropriate to leave this to an election challenge,” that is, a court, he asked. He pointedly asked the Franken team why the board shouldn’t just count duplicates instead of originally-damaged ballots to avoid the risk of double-counting.

Chief Justice Eric Magnuson underscored his belief, seconded by other board members, that their sole task is to simply rule on the ballots placed in front of them — that this is not an “evidentiary proceeding.” “We are here to look at ballots and not do anything else,” he said.

Board members also reiterated their belief that a slew of ballots facing them remain, in Ritchie’s words, “frivolous.” As for the fact that the campaigns are restoring challenges they had previously withdrawn, Magnuson said, “we’re going to put them at the back of the train.” If those restored challenges end up being frivolous, “this body is going to be very angry,” he warned.

9:03 a.m.:

The board reconvenes, with Secretary of State Mark Ritchie predicting flatly that the members will finish reviewing Al Franken’s challenges by the end of the day. Perhaps not coincidentally, board members were told that Franken’s campaign withdrew a new batch of ballots overnight.

8:44 a.m.

The members of the canvassing board are scheduled to return to their assigned duties in a few minutes. Unknowns from overnight include the biggest question: How many more challenges got dumped in their laps? That’s precisely what they don’t want, but after Team Coleman reinstated some late Tuesday, the prospect loomed large. Also unclear is whether the board members will set a firm deadline for challenges to be brought before them, something that also remained unresolved at the end of business yesterday.

Liveblogging the state Canvassing Board, Round 4

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

5:12 p.m.:
Recess until 9 a.m. (with time off for the 1 p.m. Supreme Court hearing).

5:05 p.m.: Mark Ritchie wraps up the first day thusly: “It breaks my heart we are not done today, but I understand the weather outside is frightful.” He and other board members went on to chastise both campaigns for the quantity and quality of their challenges.

“We know we have many frivilous challenges. Ritchie said. “We need to get the number of frivilous challenges down. Is that a fair representation of you guys?” Other board members murmured their assent.

Chief Justice Eric Magnuson said of the challenges he reviewed today, “some had great merit, some were a waste of our time … We need to have some order. We’re at the mercy of the candidates.” Added district judge Kathleen Gearin, “I don’t think the campaigns have gone through these as seriously as they should have.”

While Franken attorney Marc Elias complained that his counterparts on Coleman’s team continued to add to their pile of challenges today, Coleman attorney Tony Trimble said those ballots were reinstated only because of “clarification” he had gleaned from the board’s rulings today. That said, continuing to withdraw challenges “is also under consideration,” Trimble said.

2:28 p.m.:

A ballot flashed on the screen showing an oval drawn in touching both the Coleman and Franken spaces. A groan filled the hearing room.

“More water, more cookies, more coffee may be called for” Ritchie said.

Board members promptly rejected the ballot for lacking voter intent.

2:16 p.m.:
Weariness or Freudian slip? His voice on auto-pilot, Mark Ritchie moved that the vote on a ballot “be allocated to Senator Franken.” When the laughter subsided, he quickly amended it to allocate the vote to “Candidate Franken.”

What little mirth the board members could glean from the slog through the ballots came with voters’ propensity for write-ins, such as “God” and, inevitably, “Mickey Mouse.” One board member asked Ritchie how many votes Mickey had gotten, to which he replied that that particular candidate hadn’t submitted the proper paperwork to have his votes counted.

1:30 p.m.:

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie called a five-minute break to give “everyone just a little bit of relief.” More immediately, the break will allow the board to replenish its initial pile of ballots, which it had exhausted in just over an hour.

Several times, board members identified what they called “strange” ballots, those in which an oval had been clearly filled in by a voter, only to be Xed over, in addition. Repeatedly, in those cases, they had to resort to a kind of two-step rejection. First, they would fail to get sufficient votes to merely reject the challenge, only to double back and reject it because, they concluded, the voter’s intent couldn’t clearly be determined.

1:18 p.m.:

The review of the challenges grinds on, almost always at a rate of a minute per ballot (seven straight hours to go, just for Franken’s?). Most are quickly dispensed with, the challenges rejected without comment. Along the way, Franken has picked up a few votes and a few of the rulings have failed to be unanimous. Big surprises, though, (or fireworks) have been few.

Occasionally, the whole process is derailed by a ballot, like the one from Turtle Lake that showed up; it appeared to be clearly marked for Franken and was challenged by Coleman — which temporarily threw board members for a loop because they had expected to be reviewing only Franken’s challenges. Further complicating things was the fact that a handwritten note had been attached to the ballot. “I don’t want to read notes — we’re not supposed to read Post-Its,” said Chief Justice Eric Magnuson. After a bit more confusion and verbal tussling, Ritchie plowed ahead, saying, “I move to review this right now. Let’s get this over with so we can get back to work.” In short order, the Coleman challenge was rejected and the vote was awarded to Franken.

12:24 p.m.:

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie leaned into the microphone and announced, “Mr. Poser, the first ballot.”

Gary Poser, director of elections for Ritchie’s office, manipulated his computer keyboard and displayed the first of 441 ballots that have been challenged by the Franken campaign on video screens in the hearing room. The ballot, from a precinct in Andover, flashed on the screens, showing marks in the ovals for both Franken and Coleman, but a more irregular one in Franken’s. Ritchie, per the board’s procedure, moved that the challenge be rejected, a motion that was quickly seconded. Without discussion, the board unanimously rejected the challenge. It all took a single minute. Four hundred-forty to go, though, board members quickly began slowing the process with questions and disagreements.

But immediately after her fellow board members eliminated the first challenge, Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin said to no one in particular, “Can I just say it felt real good to get started on this?”

12:03 p.m.

After Ritchie laid down general ground rules for assessing the challenges, telling his fellow board members he hopes to break by 5 p.m. (or a little later), both campaigns gave what amounted to their opening arguments.

First up, Coleman attorney Tony Trimble. He urged the board members to allow both campaigns to offer comments to the board, to make “arguments why the challenge was upheld or denied … we respectfully request to be able to make timely, conservative interjections where necessary, so the nature of the challenge is fully understood.” (Board members didn’t directly respond, but Supreme Court Justice G. Barry Anderson noted that with both sides asking for such presentations, the board could be at work “until Christmas next year.” He said lawyers for both sides would be able to answer the board’s questions and that he didn’t “want to cut off” either candidate.)

Trimble also brought up another issued raised by Coleman’s campaign Monday: the question of 137 votes the campaign has identified that were duplicate votes, potentially counted twice on Election Night after an election official filled out a ballot a second time after the original was somehow mangled by a voting machine. Board members took the issue under advisement.

Next up was Franken attorney Marc Elias, who repeated the campaign’s mantra that “every valid ballot ought to be counted.” He made a distinction between two types of challenged ballots still on the table: 441 where the voter’s intent allegedly isn’t clear and another 339 that were generated because of a variety of “incident” reports that were filed after Election Night. Elias said the campaign is pulling those off the table en masse, largely because those are probably going to the be the subject “of further proceedings down the road. (i.e., potential court challenges) Those are going to be an issue for another day.”

Elections director Gary Poser explained to the board members that they have an initial pile of Franken’s challenged ballots even as department staffers continue to separate challenges from dropped challenges in a room across the hall. In addition to the original ballots, he has created PDF files that will be displayed one at a time on video screens in the hearing room, under the lenses of no fewer than 13 TV cameras.

11:33 a.m.

Finally, the main event.

Members of the state Canvassing Board are scheduled to settle into their seats in a basement hearing room at the State Office Building to begin what was supposed to be the climactic task in the never-ending U.S. Senate recount: assessing and awarding the ballots that have been challenged by the Coleman and Franken camps.

While the process, expected to last at least until the end of the day Friday, will, indeed, provide something of a milestone on the way to declaring the winner of the election, it’s certainly not likely to be the final word. Consider: Even as the board members continue their counting Thursday, the state Supreme Court will be weighing arguments over the fate of hundreds of improperly rejected absentee ballots, a number large enough to in themselves determine the winner of the election. And that doesn’t even include other all-but-inevitable court challenges yet to be filed by either side (or both).

Staffers spent four hours this morning clearing the detritus from Franken’s pile of challenged ballots, getting rid of the thousands that the campaign has withdrawn, with the goal of leaving just 436 for board members to examine. So his challenges will be up first this afternoon, with Coleman’s to follow when those ballots are culled. Coleman’s campaign submitted its final list of withdrawn challenges late Monday night, leaving just under 1,000 before the board. Elections staffers are continuing the job of consolidating the campaign’s withdrawn challenges.

With a half-hour to go, the hearing room is starting to fill up.

Obama sweeps Minnesota!

Monday, December 15th, 2008

It’s now official, according to Secretary of State Mark Ritchie — all of Minnesota’s 10 electoral votes have been cast for Barack Obama, of the State of Illinois, for president, and Joseph Biden, of the State of Delaware, for vice president.

That’s right. No challenged ballots, no absentee votes.

In a time-honored ceremony striking for its simplicity, 10 Minnesota members of the Electoral College met in the State Capitol rotunda at noon today, sat down at a long table and cast votes for Obama and Biden. The same meeting is being held today in other state capitols across the country.

Obama-Biden won Minnesota’s popular vote, which under the college’s traditional winner-take-all system entitles them to all of the state’s electoral votes. When Minnesotans voted for Obama, they were actually voting for the Democratic slate of electors rather than the Republican slate representing candidate John McCain.

Things don’t always go this way. A couple states now apportion their electoral votes according to the winner of the popular vote in individual congressional districts. And last time in Minnesota, in 2004, one elector actually voted for VP candidate John Edwards instead of presidential candidate John Kerry.

There were no such glitches this time. In strong voice, each elector announced their vote and then signed several forms to attest to it.

“It’s very exciting to be part of this,” said David Lee of Minneapolis, an IT specialist and first-time elector. “With Barack Obama coming in as president, I feel we’re coming into a new era for America.”

Liveblogging the state Canvassing Board, round 3

Friday, December 12th, 2008

After the meeting, Ritchie met with the capitol press corps in an attempt to clear up the murkiness of the board’s proceedings. Asked about board members stepping only gingerly around the counties, he said simply, “this’ll be up to the counties,” adding that most of the county officials he’s talked to “are very anxious to correct their errors.” Translation: The ball’s in their court.

Ritchie reiterated the obvious discomfort on the part of board members about the daunting number of ballot challenges that face them next week, calling it the board’s “biggest job.” “It’s the big gorilla in the room, so to speak.” If the campaigns get the total number of challenges below 1,000, the board members can finish the job in four days, he said. If more remain, they’ll take as long as it takes to review them. Once again, he thanked the campaign lawyers for reducing their challenges, but fretted that the reduction “is just not [happening] as fast as is needed.”

10:59 a.m.
Recess, until next Tuesday.

10:55 a.m.
Board members unanimously voted to ask the canvassing boards in the state’s 87 counties to count the “allegedly” improperly rejected ballots and. All stressed that this is just a recommendation, given the fact that the board has no authority to order the counties to do the job.

Yet again, the prospect of the whole process spinning into court was raised by several board members, noting that either of the campaigns could go to a county’s district court to ask that the local elections officials be compelled to count the ballots — something the board members repeatedly acknowledged they can’t do.

They initially punted on further asking the counties to submit their amended vote counts but said they fully expect the counties will forward the new counts. Ritchie prodded them to say the local canvass should be “opened, amended and sent to us — tells them we expect those [ballots] to come to us.” In the end, they backed off on saying much of anything beyond a vague expectation that the amended vote counts will somehow show up before the board next week.

Ritchie chided both campaigns for burying his office in paper at a time when he said the lawyers should be devoting their energies to chipping away at the mountain of challenged ballots. He warned them: “I’m gonna manage this process so we finish on the 19th. Everyone should hear this message.”

Final understatement of the day, from Supreme Court Justice G. Barry Anderson: “We’re in very much uncharted water here.”

10:10 a.m.
On to the improperly rejected absentee ballots. So far, in 49 counties, 4,823 rejected ballots have been examined and 638 of those were determined by local officials to have been wrongfully rejected, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann reported. If that trend holds true, with more than 13 percent of the votes tossed improperly, that would end up totalling 1,587 statewide, he said.

“It looks like a significant number,” Ritchie said, turning to Swanson. She said her staff started with the assumption that “every lawful vote should count.” The improperly rejected ballots were cast by “voters who did everything right on Election Night,” she said. “They followed the rules … they had their votes rejected through no fault of their own.”

She said a review of case law found that the board members can neither count the votes themselves, nor order the county election officials to count them. The board can, however, ask the county canvassing boards to count the improperly rejected ballots and report the new totals to the board in amended reports.

9: 47 a.m.
Next up, the 133 ballots from Minneapolis. City elections director Cindy Reichert gave a brief rundown of how the ballots disappeared from Ward 3 Precinct 1. “We were quite busy, there was a lot going on,” she noted. Her bottom line: “We determined definitively the ballots were missing” — a contention that’s been dismissed by Coleman’s team. Reichert recommended that the board accept the number of votes in the precinct counted on Election Night: 2,028 (which is actually 132 votes higher than recounted because of what she called an insigificant math error).

Attorney General Lori Swanson said that based on case law, the board can accept the number counted on Election Night “if you believe those [votes] were cast and counted on Election Night.”

After several board members questioned Reichert about her calculations about the vote totals, she stated simply, “I am convinced those are correct.”

Board member Eric Magnuson, the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, moved that the board certify the Election Night count of 2,028 votes and the board adopted the motion unanimously. Magnuson noted that court precedents have noted that a challenge to that decision would rely on firm evidence and “if you don’t have the ballots, you don’t have evidence. I believe the office here acted in the best interest of the public.”

He also noted that the issue “no doubt” is headed for court.

9:39 a.m.
Update on ballot challenges: Of a total of 6,655 submitted by both campaigns, that number has been whittled to 4,472, a task the board will take up next week.
Board member Kathleen Gearin issued an audible sigh and delivered both sides with a none-too-subtle tongue lashing: “I hope these challenges are serious,” she said. “This is about every Minnesotan’s right to vote … You’d have to be deaf and dumb, uh, intellectually challenged, not to hear people wondering if all these challenges are serious. I just hope both sides are respecting every single ballot they see. Please, please, be serious.”

9:34 a.m.
The board reconvenes. In the understatement of the morning, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, the board’s chair, opens by saying the proceeding is rife with “high energy and a lot of emotion.”

9:20 a.m.

The curtain’s scheduled to go back up in a few minutes on the state Canvassing Board’s deliberations in the never-ending Franken v. Coleman slugfest. This time, the five board members have to decide whether they’ll count hundreds of so-called “improperly” rejected absentee ballots. There are potentially enough of them to decide the election; Team Franken wants them counted, while Coleman’s folks don’t.

It’s not at all clear what, if anything, the board members will do about the ballots. They’re armed with an opinion from the Attorney General’s office (which they haven’t made public) which advises them whether they even have the power to deal with the ballots or can simply pass on the issue. Which would likely lead the dispute into the courts.

Also: Board members are expected to take up the still-vexing issue of the 133 missing ballots from a precinct in Minneapolis’ Dinkytown neighborhood.

Stay tuned.

We’re (phew) Number 33!

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

In the wake of the spectacular implosion of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, folks at The Politico took a look at the culture of political corruption in America. In doing so, they dusted off a study published last year by the publication Corporate Crime Reporter, which ranked the 35 most populous states in the nation on a corruption index.

Minnesota, to the certain relief of the state’s good-government folks, ranked 33rd, followed only by Iowa and Oregon. Ranked first (no big surprise) was Louisiana; Illinois, for all its legendary corruption cases, didn’t even make the top five.

The publication (here’s the original) used Justice Department statistics to calculate a corruption rate, defined as the total number of public corruption convictions between 1997 and 2006 per 100,000 residents. Minnesota’s score was 1.24, to Illinois’ 4.68 and Lousiana’s 7.67.

Ritchie on his once (and future?) job: Understatement of the month

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

A group of foodie activists have floated a number of names they have deemed worthy of being named as Ag Secretary by the Obama transition folks, and prominent among them is Mark Ritchie, Minnesota’s Secretary of State.

The folks at Food Democracy Now are looking for someone running the massive USDA bureaucracy who will embrace sustainability and be family-farm friendly. In floating Ritchie’s name, the group cites his work as policy analyst in Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture co-founder of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Ritchie replied, via Facebook, that while he’s honored to be mentioned, he’s a tad, well, busy right now, what with the U.S. Senate mess. His reply (hat tip, Minnesota Independent):

“I am honored that these folks would consider me capable and worthy of that important leadership role. At this point in time I am very busy [emphasis added] and very happy with my current job. A strong and future-oriented thinking USDA is crucial for tackling our nation’s economic, energy, environmental and health challenges and I am anxious to find ways to be supportive of the team that President Obama puts into place to lead this important agency.”

Voters: Yes on absentee ballots, No on legal challenge

Monday, December 8th, 2008

Minnesota voters agree with DFLer Al Franken that rejected absentee ballots should be reviewed. But they don’t think that the candidate who loses the U.S. Senate recount should challenge it in court, even if they think the process was unfair.

That’s according to a SurveyUSA poll commissioned by KSTP-TV, which was released last night by Channel 5′s top political reporter Tom Hauser.

The poll found that voters think Republican Sen. Norm Coleman has done a better job of handling the recount of the U.S. Senate race. And the early controversy over whether Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a DFLer, was too partisan to ensure a fair result seems to have dissipated, the poll suggests.

The poll, taken of 556 registered voters last week, shows that most respondents — 58 percent — think the recount process has been fair to both Coleman and Franken. But a few more think it’s been unfair to Coleman, 20 percent, than to Franken, 13 percent.

More voters approve of the way the Coleman campaign has handled the recount — 51 percent approve and 40 percent disapprove — while slightly more disapprove of the Franken campaign’s handling of the recount, 48 percent to 44 percent.

The one figure who comes back with glowing reviews is Ritchie, whose recount work won the approval of 61 percent and the disapproval of 26 percent.

A bare majority — 53 percent — said they have the same amount of faith in Minnesota’s electoral system. But about a third said they have less faith, while only 11 percent said they have more faith in the system.

Nearly 60 percent of the voters say absentee ballots that were rejected should be reviewed, a key piece of the Franken campaign’s strategy. Those ballots are being sorted this week, and the fate of the ones that were improperly rejected may be decided Friday by the state Canvassing Board.

On the other hand, the poll shows that most voters don’t like the prospect of a legal challenge by the candidate who loses in the recount tally. Fifty-five percent said a legal challenge shouldn’t be filed, while 40 percent said it should.

The most amusing findings came on the question of who voters would would support if the election was held today. The results: Coleman 41 percent, Franken 40 percent, Barkley 15 percent.

Just in case you don’t remember, the results on Election Day were Coleman 41.99 percent, Franken 41.98 percent, and Barkley 15.2 percent.

It’s deja vu all over again.

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