Minnesota's reputation for pristine elections is still mostly intact, but it has taken a few hard hits under the harsh light of a protracted recount.
As the U.S. Senate recount careens toward a pivotal week of state Canvassing Board hearings, many election experts insist that the state's voting system -- often cited as one of the nation's best -- has held up well under examination. But some Minnesotans have seen their faith rattled.
The recount has revealed numerous missteps, some involving enough ballots to tip the balance.
A machine jammed in Maplewood, resulting in 177 ballots going uncounted until the final day of the recount in Ramsey County. Minneapolis officials are still unable to locate 133 ballots cast at the University Lutheran Church of Hope; state officials ordered that the votes, which were counted on Election Day, remain in the final results. And more than 1,600 absentee ballots were improperly rejected by local officials.
Simply put, Minnesota's election system, like any other, struggles to parse results in which the margin between candidates is measured in one-thousandths of a percent.
Meet Mary Swanson and Ariel Kagan.
Swanson, 70, lives in Edina, knits avidly and has been marking ballots since she first pulled a lever for Eisenhower in the 1950s. Kagan, 19, is a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
Swanson underwent foot surgery Nov. 4, so she voted the Friday before Election Day in Edina with her husband. Their votes were counted, but only because a meticulous election clerk didn't let them leave before discovering Dean Swanson had failed to sign the back of his absentee envelope.
"If we lived in a different county where they didn't hold your hand, his vote might not have counted," Swanson said. "Then I started hearing about missing ballots and seeing all these challenged ballots on TV that I couldn't believe were being questioned."
Swanson said she'd always been grateful to vote in Minnesota, where the long lines and scandals of Florida or Ohio seemed so far away.
"Now all this has absolutely shaken my confidence," she said. "I am mad."
Kagan was so excited to vote for the first time, she registered the day she turned 18 and then again last summer at the secretary of state's booth at the State Fair just to be safe.
Only when she came home to St. Paul for Thanksgiving did she learn her absentee vote had been rejected because of a mix-up involving her two middle names, which honor her grandmother and mother.
Election judges at the Dunning Recreation Center turned aside her ballot because they apparently thought Ariel Magdalene Washescha-Kagan wasn't the Ariel Kagan who had signed up.
"I was totally blown away and incredulous and felt cheated out of my first election," she said. "When I'm 65, I can't tell my children I was part of a historic movement. We've been doing this since 1776; you'd think we'd have figured out how to run elections by now."
Laws, machines and humans
As the recount winds on, most Minnesotans fall into distinct camps. Many are weary and simply want to know who won. Then there are the recount wonks who watch every twist and turn like the swivel-heads at a tennis match.
"This has been a fabulous civics lesson, and look how much everybody has learned," said Mark Halvorson, director of Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota. "It's not perfect and maybe some of our smugness has rubbed off, but it's a heck of a lot better system than Florida and Ohio."
He was a nonpartisan observer who watched Minneapolis officials scour a warehouse in vain, looking for an envelope with the 133 missing ballots.
"Whenever a spotlight is shone, clearly some flaws and problems with the system will turn up," he said. "But I believe Minnesota has withstood the national scrutiny and all the partisan pressures to try to undermine our credibility."
For the most part, Franken fans are angry, while Coleman supporters say their man won on Nov. 4, is still winning and will be certified as the winner.
"If that gets refuted, then the whole system will be throw into chaos," said Sarah Janecek, a Republican strategist. "So far, at the grocery store and gas station, everyone is very tired of the whole thing, but there's a basic sense that, yep, we had an election and we had a recount and the result was the same, so the system must work."
Minnesota's election system is really a three-pronged fork made up of laws, machines and humans. The consensus is that the laws, which hinge on the voter's intent and include same-day registration and postelection machine audits, are among the best in the nation.
However, the state's cumbersome absentee voting system bogged down and its weaknesses were amplified by a historically tight race.
Absentee voters complain that the requirement of multiple signatures, including from witnesses, gets bollixed by confusing instructions; many insist those instructions omit key information about the need to sign the back of the envelope. On the other end, the Coleman-Franken recount has added the term "fifth pile" to the vernacular, referring to hundreds of absentee ballots that election judges might have wrongly rejected.
A national comparison
Minnesota's absentee voting issues mirror national problems. While three-quarters of voters believe their votes were counted properly Nov. 4, only 61 percent of those voting absentee think they were tallied correctly, according to a national survey of 10,000 people conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"I still think you guys have among the best systems in the country and your laws are clear," said Charles Seife, a New York University professor who spent a week here observing the recount. "You're not a laughingstock at this point, but things could get worse."
The machines have performed admirably and consistently, thanks to verification-friendly paper ballots and uniform optical scanners.
Election Day's humid weather caused some ballots to jam because of moisture retention. That, in turn, led judges to re-insert jammed ballots that had already been counted, causing some double tallies that have mostly been ironed out.
"The machines aren't perfect, but they're probably as good as the scanners at the grocery store," said Joe Mansky, Ramsey County's elections manager. "If you shop 50 times a year, [any mistakes are] probably a wash. But we don't vote enough times, so one vote has a greater consequence to you than a dollar, plus or minus, on a box of corn flakes."
Factoring for humanity
The human factor -- from the long hours logged by twice-a-year election judges to the voters failing to fill in ovals properly -- has prompted the most problems.
"The average age of my election judges is well over 60," said Becky Shoop, 47, a former military police officer and chief election judge at Burnsville's Precinct 16 at the Buck Hill ski lodge.
On Election Day, she earned $10 an hour, the average rate for the 25,000 election judges spread out at 4,000 polling places statewide. Because they have to be able to devote time that many younger civic-minded folks simply can't spare, those judges tend to be old and getting older.
"I love their dedication to democracy dearly, but they get a little flustered with technology, and their ability to handle the long hours diminishes every four years," Shoop said.
Karen Guilfoile, Maplewood's top election official, said next time she'll bring in judges at 6 p.m. to close the polls and add fresh eyes to a crew that has worked 12-hour shifts. But the glitches don't always happen at the end of a long day. An early morning Election Day foul-up was the reason the 177 Maplewood ballots went uncounted for weeks.
Nonpartisan observers say other flaws were revealed under the spotlight.
Common Cause director Mike Dean said his watchdog group was flooded with reports of people who had voted for years at the same spot only to vanish from the rolls.
No signs of outright fraud have surfaced, though.
The candidates haven't helped the process, most observers agree.
"From the first day when Coleman announced victory, it started throwing doubt on the process," said Seife, the NYU prof. "Then people tried explaining away missing ballots, and the credibility of the whole process diminished."
With the margin between winner and loser in the thousandths of 1 percent, Seife said "there's not a system in existence right now capable of doing something this large with such a level of precision."
He likened it to trying to eyeball which of two 6-foot guys is taller.
"They're within a width of a hair, so you'd have to shave their heads, remove their socks and shoes and measure them at the same time in the morning so their spines are equally stretched," he said. "Even the tiniest thing will screw up your measurement."
That's why elections officials always hope for blowouts.
"In any normal election, none of this would matter," Seife said. "The moment it's close, all the flaws are exposed."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767