The hand-counting of 5,500 ballots that will determine the winner of a heated Minneapolis school board race began Wednesday at a city warehouse, after a sometimes bumpy Election Day that raised questions about the city's preparations.
City election officials said counting was likely to last until late Wednesday or early Thursday in the race between Josh Reimnitz and Patty Wycoff for District 4, which stretches between downtown and the Isles area.
The results will be provided to the secretary of state's office, which will post them on its website later Thursday. Reimnitz currently leads by 573 votes with about 80 percent of the district's votes counted.
The city blamed the problem on a printing error that prevented machines from reading the votes. Still, questions swirled about why the error wasn't detected earlier, as well as other problems -- why some voters had to wait hours in line, and why Minneapolis lagged so far behind the rest of the state in reporting results. The City Council's Elections Committee plans to scrutinize those issues, probably yet this month, according to Chairman Cam Gordon.
The number of polling places has dropped from more than 131 to 117 since the 2008 presidential election, and there were complaints about long lines from several areas of the city.
Priscilla Russell, who has voted at the same Third Ward precinct for 15 years, said she had to wait almost three hours to vote, much of that time standing in a brisk wind. She said she's never waited for more than an hour to vote in a presidential year.
"We hear stories from other areas of the country where voters wait for hours. I never thought it would happen to me voting in Minneapolis," Russell said. "The only thing that kept me in line was all the other people enduring the same wait with patience, good humor and courtesy."
Despite similar reports of lengthy lines at Seward and Loring Park neighborhood polling places, City Clerk Casey Carl said that polling places were sufficiently staffed. Asked whether the city puts enough money into its elections system, Carl said, "That's a policy question for the mayor and City Council."
Council Member Elizabeth Glidden promised her constituents Wednesday that the city will review all precincts for waiting times, staffing and space.
City and Hennepin County elections officials said they think that the ballot-printing error and aging ballot-scanning equipment may have combined to leave ballots in three Ward 10 precincts uncountable by normal automated procedures. But those issues with the county-supplied ballots weren't detected in pre-election tests by the city.
Officials say the problem is stray white marks in the black boxes on the left margin of some ballots that tell the scanner where to look for filled ovals.
The voting machines are 13 years old, and Rachel Smith, the county's elections manager, said money is being set aside to replace them. The county hopes for delivery next year, but if not, the city will use the same equipment in municipal elections a year from now.
A more immediate question for many awaiting results on election night was the failure of the city to release results. The law blocks posting of a precinct's results until all votes, including absentees, are counted. But Smith said the city didn't communicate which precincts were completed until the last precincts were sent to the county for posting just after midnight.
Carl said the city got an "unbelievable number" of absentee ballots this time. Although those ballots could be processed starting last Friday, the job was still going on after polls closed Tuesday.
Council Member Lisa Goodman called the city's lapse "totally outrageous." The delay left city vote totals blank on the statewide election reporting site, a contrast with St. Paul and other places that also had absentee ballots.
It also left candidates such as Wycoff and Reimnitz in the dark and skewed reporting of statewide totals for proposed constitutional amendments.
Wycoff said she's holding out hope that two precincts in the Wedge area and one in Whittier will help her overcome Reimnitz's lead. But she'll have to win nearly two-thirds of the uncounted votes to do so, and he ran slightly ahead of her in the already counted precincts of the same ward.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib