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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.