MINNEAPOLIS - St. Louis County keeps election ballots in the courthouse attic. Anoka County keeps them locked in the basement. Hennepin County relies on its cities to keep their own ballots safe.
While Minnesota's secretary of state holds counties responsible for securing ballots after an election, there's no uniform standard for doing so. That could come into play when those votes are recounted in the U.S. Senate race, and the campaigns on Monday were negotiating neutral standards for ballot security.
That came after an unsuccessful Saturday court filing by Republican incumbent Norm Coleman to halt the counting of 32 absentee ballots from Minneapolis. Coleman's campaign questioned the ballots' legitimacy, saying they were told the ballots had been left for several days in the car of a Minneapolis election official.
A city spokesman said the ballots were never unaccounted for, and the Coleman campaign later said it accepted those assurances. But with Coleman and Democrat Al Franken separated by just over 200 votes out of nearly 3 million cast, ballot integrity will remain an issue.
"There have been some concerning reports about strange things happening in the context of this recount," Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican who campaigned for Coleman, said on Monday. He said he considers it "important that the process be locked down and secure."
The last large-scale recount of a statewide election was in the Washington state governor's race in 2004, a turbulent contest in which the Republican candidate initially appeared to win only to be displaced by the Democrat after two recounts. In that case, vote totals changed several times upon discoveries of piles of uncounted ballots in several counties.
"It was an area where we thought we had good procedures in place," said Nick Handy, Washington's state director of elections. "But the intense scrutiny of a razor-thin statewide recount really just brings everything to light."
Handy said overlooked ballots were the result of human error, but the oversights became a main focus of Republican Dino Rossi's lawsuit to overturn the election results after the second recount erased his lead. That lawsuit failed, but Handy said the Washington Legislature has since passed reforms to toughen the standards for handling ballots.
In Minnesota, rules enforced by the secretary of state require the municipalities that hold the elections to keep the ballots secure "until all recounts have been completed and until the time for contest of election has expired." There's no standard procedures for doing so.
Most Minnesota counties collect all election ballots and store them in a secure place. In St. Louis County, it's in a room in the attic of the courthouse; only the county elections director and the county auditor have keys. In Anoka County, only one key exists to the basement room where the ballots are held. In tiny Cottonwood County in southwestern Minnesota, County Auditor Jan Johnson keeps the ballot locked in a vault in his office.
"No one is monkeying around with this. They're taking this dead serious," said Paul Tynjala, St. Louis County's director of elections. "The last thing anyone wants is someone to contend the integrity of the ballots was somehow disturbed."
Hennepin County, the state's largest, handles it differently. Deputy elections manager Kurt Hoffman said because of the number of voters, it would be "logistically difficult" to keep all the ballots in one place. Instead, the ballots remain in the custody of the cities where the votes were cast. "There's an understanding between the cities and the county that they're going to keep them secured," Hoffman said.
After the weekend flap over the Minneapolis absentees, the Coleman campaign proposed to the Franken campaign a uniform set of standards for securing ballots based on the system established by Stearns County.
Among other provisions, Stearns County requires ballots remain under lock and key; that only two keys to the room exist; that any time county staff enters the room, at least two people must be present; that a log be kept noting why and when any workers entered the room; and that representatives of Senate campaigns be allowed to keep "visual guard" outside the ballot storage room.
The Franken campaign suggested several modifications, and by Monday afternoon the two campaigns appeared to be close to an agreement on ballot security procedures.