Democrat's move may put pressure on Republican Emmer not to dispute hundreds of "frivolous" ballots.
The Minnesota gubernatorial recount took an unexpected turn when DFLer Mark Dayton announced on Thursday that he would withdraw all ballot challenges from his campaign that local officials had ruled frivolous.
The move is largely symbolic -- Dayton had only 42 challenges that got the frivolous tag -- but it may apply pressure to Republican Tom Emmer, who has far more challenges awaiting state judgment. In a letter to the state Canvassing Board announcing Dayton's decision, Dayton's attorney put the number from the Emmer camp at 2,586 as of Wednesday.
Board members will meet Friday afternoon to discuss the frivolous-ballot issue, which has become the major flashpoint in the recount, much as absentee ballots did during the 2008 U.S. Senate recount.
Dayton attorney Marc Elias described Emmer's ballot-challenge strategy as "an unfortunate attempt to disenfranchise Minnesota voters."
"This pattern of frivolous challenges by the Emmer campaign is inconsistent with Minnesota law," Elias said. "It is disrespectful of the process and of thousands of Minnesota voters."
State GOP Chairman Tony Sutton said that Emmer's attorneys will review all of their challenged ballots and withdraw some before the Canvassing Board meets on Wednesday. But he said they aren't ready to do that yet and that they would like some of the so-called frivolous challenges reexamined.
"We think there are some that are in there that need to be seen by the Canvassing Board," Sutton said.
He also took exception to Elias' remarks. Sutton said Emmer's challenges make up only a "minuscule percentage" of the 2.1 million votes recounted. "We are not doing anything but exercising our right to make sure people are enfranchised, to make sure every vote counts," he said. "I'm dismayed that Mr. Elias would want to keep every vote from counting. That's not the Minnesota way."
Linchpin of strategy
Challenged ballots have been the linchpin of the Emmer campaign's strategy to overcome Dayton's lead of nearly 9,000 votes.
As of Thursday night, 93 percent of the votes cast in the election had been recounted, according to the secretary of state. Emmer had gained 53 votes and Dayton had lost 17.
In Hennepin County, where the sparring on the frivolous-challenge issue has been sharpest, both campaigns continued to snipe about it on Thursday, before Dayton's letter was sent.
The process has played out far differently in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, the only ones where the recount remains unfinished.
By all accounts, there has been little rancor or wrangling over challenged ballots in Ramsey County. Not so in Hennepin, where the Emmer campaign has challenged hundreds of ballots a day, prompting elections manager Rachel Smith to complain both that the vast majority are frivolous and that the frequency was slowing the recount.
Still, compared with the previous two days, "things have been calm today," Smith said. "Everyone's kind of hunkered down at the tables."
With Emmer needing to amass enough challenged ballots to catch Dayton, "they're nowhere near that," said Ken Martin, Dayton's recount director.
But Emmer attorney Tony Trimble said he believed that goal can be reached. "That's why we're here," he said.
"This is a political process. There's obviously partisanship involved on both sides," Trimble said. "There's going to be some of that gamesmanship around."
Down the hall from the dueling spokesmen, election judge Ardis Wexler hasn't been fazed by the grind and complexity of the recount. "The system works," said Wexler, an election judge since 1976. "Last time, in 2008, it was noisier and much more contentious."
Wexler, 68, has spent four long days in the basement of the Hennepin County Government Center, seated at a table with two other election judges overseeing the counting. Representatives of Emmer and Dayton hover nearby, challenging ballots they don't think should count, for a variety of reasons.
"Basically, the challengers get along -- they all understand the rules," said Wexler, a retired Edina resident.
At 25 tables in the government center, ballots are examined one at a time. When a candidate's representative challenges one, the three judges agree or disagree ("it hasn't always been unanimous") and call over a supervisor who writes down the reason for the challenge on the back of the ballot, adding whether it appears to be frivolous or not.
"In my opinion, it's generally pretty clear in most of the cases what the voter's intent was, but our process is to allow the challenges," Wexler said. "It's going to sound corny, but this is a wonderful display of democracy."
Staff writer Rachel Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184