Editorial: The case for a lower recount threshold

  • Updated: November 15, 2010 - 6:56 PM

Scanners' accuracy makes 0.5 percent seem too high.

There's something distinctly and honorably Minnesotan about the careful comments both DFLer Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer have made about their close election contest since Nov. 2. Both candidates for governor have taken pains to respect each other's positions and avoid presumptuous claims. (It's unfortunate that Republican Party chair Tony Sutton was not as reticent the day after the election.)

Thus a "what-if" from the Dayton recount team last week was offered as little more than a passing observation: What if Minnesota had lowered the margin-of-victory threshold that triggers an automatic recount in state elections from 0.5 percent to 0.25 percent, as was proposed in 2009 by DFL Rep. Bill Hilty and Sen. Katie Sieben?

Had their bills become law, Gov.-elect Dayton likely would be announcing his top commissioner appointees this week. Legislators of both parties would begin crafting legislation, knowing whose signature their bills would require in order to be enacted. And Minnesotans would at least be assured that their government was gearing up to tackle the biggest state fiscal crisis since the 1930s.

Instead, state government is on tenterhooks, waiting for the State Canvassing Board to give the go-ahead for a massive hand recount. It's expected to begin Nov. 29, continue through about Dec. 14, engage thousands of paid election workers and volunteers, and cost state and local taxpayers upwards of $200,000. That's not to mention the hefty legal charges that the two campaigns are already incurring.

The 8,755-vote unofficial lead that Dayton holds (as of midday Monday) amounts to 0.42 percent of the vote. That's a tight result out of roughly 2.1 million ballots cast -- but it's nothing like the few-hundred-vote cliffhanger that emerged in the U.S. Senate contest two years ago. In fact, Dayton has a larger unofficial margin than has ever been overturned in a modern-era recount, in any state.

In most other states, Dayton's lead, though close, would already be conclusive. Minnesota is one of only six states that allows for a taxpayer-funded hand recount of a statewide election when the leader's margin is less than 0.5 percent. (State election laws vary considerably; several other states also have a 0.5 percent threshold, but calculate that percentage differently or perform something less than a full hand recount of all ballots cast.)

Minnesota would be justified in conducting more frequent recounts than most states if its initial election results had a history of unreliability. In fact, the opposite is true. In all but a handful of sparsely populated precincts, Minnesota voters feed paper ballots into optical scanners that tally votes with a high degree of accuracy. A 2006 audit by the nonpartisan Citizens for Election Integrity/MN found a discrepancy in that year's U.S. Senate race between optical-scan tallies and a hand tally of 0.00056 percent, or 1 per 2,000 voters.

An occasional hand recount of a close contest isn't a bad thing in a democracy. The exercise pinpoints problems and points the way to their correction. The 2008 Senate recount found an unacceptably high error rate in both the casting and the processing of absentee ballots. That information led to enactment of election law changes earlier this year that, by the current tally, resulted in about 65 percent fewer absentee ballot rejections in the Nov. 2 election.

Recounts this year in the governor's race and three close state House races -- districts 15B, 25B and 27A -- will serve as an audit of those changes in state law. That's an expensive but genuine silver lining to the cloud of delay that's been cast over the governor's race. Meanwhile, here's hoping that among the bills being drafted for the 2011 Legislature is one to reduce the automatic recount margin-of-victory threshold to 0.25 percent.

  • THE 2008 EXPERIENCE

    In 2008, Minnesota had one famous and four lesser-noticed election recounts -- the U.S. Senate race; the state Supreme Court primary; and three legislative races, Senate District 16 and House Districts 12B and 16A. If the margin-of-victory trigger for an automatic recount had been 0.25 percent, the number of recounts would have been reduced from five to two -- the U.S. Senate and District 16. Taken together, the three recounts that would have been eliminated produced a total change in vote margins of 10 votes.

    Office of Secretary of State; material prepared for a House Elections Committee hearing, April 2, 2009.

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