In tortured history of state recounts, 1962 hard to top

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 5, 2008 - 8:27 PM

In the Minnesota governor's race 46 years ago, Elmer L. Andersen thought he won by 142 votes. After weeks of arduous review, Karl Rolvaag was the victor by 91 votes.

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Both challenger Karl Rolvaag, left, and Gov. Elmer L. Andersen supported the taconite amendment during their 1962 campaigns. After a recount, Rolvaag won by 91 votes out of nearly 1.3 million cast.

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So you think the Norm Coleman-Al Franken U.S. Senate battle-turned-recount is a knock-down, drag-out doozy?

Here's some perspective:

One of the tightest races in Minnesota history turned into a recount marathon 46 years ago, ending four months later with a double reversal of the Election Day results. When the bitter contest ended the following spring, the incumbent governor, Elmer L. Andersen, who thought he had been reelected by 142 votes, was unseated by a mere 91 votes by his DFL challenger, Karl Rolvaag.

"There were people who said that my inability to come up with another 92 votes for my boss made me responsible for making him an ex-governor," Tom Swain, Andersen's former chief of staff, joked Wednesday. Swain, now 87, directed the recount for Andersen.

"It was a tough, tough contest," Swain said.

About two thirds of the 1.26 million votes cast in the 1962 gubernatorial race were recorded on paper ballots. Rolvaag was ahead by 58 votes in the initial tally, but when the state Canvassing Board met in late November, it declared Andersen the winner. Because recounts weren't automatic in close races back then, Rolvaag had to ask for one, and did so in December.

Swain said attorneys representing each side appeared before the state Supreme Court four times before the recount started to argue "technical issues."

Later in December, the court deployed about 100 three-person teams across Minnesota's 87 counties and large cities to review ballots. Each team included one DFL counter, one Republican counter and one neutral member.

"We found lots and lots of mistakes, but never anything improper," Swain said.

On March 23, 1963, the court ruled Rolvaag had 619,842 votes -- 91 more than Andersen. His margin of victory was .007 percent.

Swain said that some Republican leaders urged Andersen to appeal, hoping he could stretch his gubernatorial stay through the 1963 legislative session. But Andersen conceded after being told he had no legal basis to appeal, Swain said. He resigned two days later.

"We busted our butts," Swain said. "We did what we could. This was pretty tense stuff. But in the end, what do you do?"

Other recounts

While the 1962 gubernatorial race is the state's most memorable recount, it's not the only high-profile race to get an official, second look.

In 1986, U.S. Rep. Arlan Stangeland, a Republican incumbent, won Minnesota's Seventh District congressional race by 121 votes over Democratic challenger Collin Peterson. Following the election, Peterson filed for a recount, the first congressional recount in modern state history.

Nearly 188,000 votes were recounted. A month later, Peterson pulled the plug on the review after Stangeland increased his lead to 247 votes.

"It's a terrible thing to have to go through," said Peterson, who rebounded to defeat Stangeland in a 1990 rematch. "There's nothing worse on election night than to not know if you are going to win or not. Then when it drags on for two months, it's like water torture. It's no fun."

In 2000, U.S. Rep. David Minge, D-Minn., conceded the Second District election to Republican Mark Kennedy after dropping his recount bid four days after it was determined that it was unlikely he could overcome Kennedy's 148-vote lead.

Earlier this year, the state Canvassing Board ordered the first statewide election recount since 1962 because of the narrow margin between the second- and third-place finishers in a Sept. 9 primary for a Supreme Court seat. Determining the second-place finisher was key, because the top two vote recipients advanced to the Nov. 4 general election for the seat.

Hennepin County District Judge Deborah Hedlund, who initially finished second in the primary, held onto second place, receiving 56,513 votes to 55,172 for defense lawyer Jill Clark.

A recount also was ordered for House District 3A in northern Minnesota, where only three votes separated Independence Party candidates W.D. (Bill) Hamm and Chris Pfeifer. Hamm won by four votes.

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425

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