Rejected absentee ballots: Should they count?

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK and BOB VON STERNBERG , Star Tribune s taff writers
  • Updated: November 15, 2008 - 7:28 AM

Officials disagree on whether improperly completed absentee ballots should be made public.

Plans for starting a recount of Minnesota's U.S. Senate race were being finalized Friday as continued sparring between the rivals' campaigns suggested there could be bumps in the road ahead.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said Friday that plans are in place for the State Canvassing Board to meet Tuesday, when it will review official county election totals, and it will likely vote to move the recount process forward in the race between Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken. Franken had gained two net votes as of Friday evening, according to a Star Tribune calculation of the results of a hand recount conducted to test voting machines. If made official, that would leave Coleman with a lead of 204 votes out of about 2.9 million cast.

More than 100 sites have been identified where county and city officials will conduct the recount, which is expected to be completed by mid-December.

Meanwhile, both campaigns will be pursuing other measures that are likely to end up in the courts. The Franken campaign earlier this week sued to obtain data about rejected absentee ballots across the state. Coleman has contended the information is confidential. Ritchie, who had said previously his office would steer clear of the rejected absentee ballots, said Friday the Canvassing Board will probably determine whether to take up the issue.

While Hennepin and Ramsey counties have said the rejected ballot information is non-public, Gary Poser, the secretary of state's chief election official, said Friday that he has been advising other counties that the information should be public, which would make it available to the Franken campaign.

Late Friday, the Coleman campaign sent Ritchie a letter raising "serious concerns" about Poser's position, "especially since the revised legal positions are identical to the positions of the Al Franken campaign."

Approaching voters

In Beltrami County, which already has provided the data, the Franken campaign is approaching voters in hopes of questioning the rejection of ballots. The county has 69 absentee ballots that were rejected. There is no estimate of the number of rejected absentee ballots because the Secretary of State's office doesn't keep a tally, but it is believed the number is substantial.

Mark Jeranek, who voted absentee in Beltrami County and whose ballot was rejected because he did not sign an outside envelope, said he has been approached several times by the Franken campaign asking him to sign an affidavit affirming that he did vote and that he wants his vote counted.

Jeranek, who lives in Jones Township near Bemidji, said an original affidavit sent to him by the Franken campaign indicated that Jeranek did sign the envelope. But when Jeranek approached Beltrami election officials about the issue, he came away convinced he had failed to sign the document.

"I'd like to have my vote counted, but it was my mistake, not anybody else's," he said. Jeranek said he voted for Franken but did not believe the Franken campaign knew that when it approached him.

Kay Mack, the county's auditor-treasurer and its chief election official, said she was troubled by what appeared to be an effort by the Franken campaign to challenge the rejection of the ballots without first contacting local officials. The data provided to the campaign clearly indicated that Jeranek has been rejected because he failed to sign the envelope, she said.

"They knew he hadn't signed it and they are still encouraging him to sign this affidavit, so that's frustrating," Mack said. "Whether they are attempting to do something wrong or maybe they read something wrong, I don't know."

Jess McIntosh, a spokeswoman for Franken, said that she could not speak to the specific incident with Jeranek but that the campaign was in the early stages of collecting information and was seeking data wherever it could get it. She said it would be incorrect to suggest the campaign was trying to manipulate the process.

"We're trying to gather information about votes that may not have been counted," she said. "In some cases we've had contact with these voters and we're trying to fairly document the facts."

Franken was pressed Friday on Minnesota Public Radio on whether he thinks he can make up 206 votes he is behind via the absentees. He said that wasn't the point: "We just think every vote should count."

Questioning ballots

Earlier this week, Gov. Tim Pawlenty added fuel to the debate when he raised concerns of his own about ballot security, speaking on Fox News about an allegation, now documented as inaccurate, that a Minneapolis election official drove around with 32 absentee ballots in the trunk of her car.

Ritchie declined to be critical of Pawlenty, but said he sent a note to Pawlenty thanking him for his support for the overall integrity of the state's election process and providing him with his cell phone number if the governor had any further questions.

Asked if Pawlenty wanted to modify his comments, Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said: "Based on ballot security issues reported in news accounts, the governor expressed his concerns. He's glad some of these matters have been clarified."

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636

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