In this extraordinary trial by fire, Minnesota's election system withstands the scrutiny while revealing areas for needed reform.
Six weeks of recounting still hasn't told us who won. But it has told us this: As good as the state's election system might be, it could be better.
Election officials, legislators and political observers who have been scrutinizing the U.S. Senate recount say they plan to push for changes to Minnesota election laws in coming months to make it easier for people to cast ballots and easier on those who count them.
Those changes -- aimed at reducing the human errors that have caused some of the biggest headaches in the recount -- range from shortening shifts for precinct election judges to extending the number of voting days by allowing early voting for everyone.
"Now is the time to look at election law and ... improve that so that in 2010, Minnesota can continue to be the model for elections across the country," said Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, a government watchdog group that has tracked the problems Minnesota voters encountered on Nov. 4.
Dean said his organization will send state legislators a report next month outlining ways to improve the election system.
"Because of the bright light of the Senate recount," he said, "we're hoping to get public support for these issues."
Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky said he also plans to lobby for changes, including establishing polling places in stores, malls and other public spots to improve voter access.
"There are too many things we are doing simply because we've always been doing them," Mansky said. "This is a good time, post-recount, to find a better use for our technology. ... It's almost 2009. And yet we operate the election system like it's the early 1900s."
Minnesota a model
Despite voters' concerns, some observers say the recount has shown that the state's election system works well.
"There may be something coming out of this that says 'Tweak the system,' but so far, I haven't seen anything to suggest that anything is improper or wrong," said Lilydale Mayor Tom Swain, who directed a four-month recount for Gov. Elmer L. Andersen in the 1962 gubernatorial race, which Anderson lost to Karl Rolvaag by 91 votes.
But Dean and others say a few simple, but significant changes would make the process easier on everybody. Foremost among them -- early voting.
Currently, 32 states give voters a chance to cast ballots days or weeks before election day. In North Carolina this year, 2.4 million voters, or more than half the people who voted in the presidential election cast their votes between Oct. 16 and Nov. 1, the state's early voting period.
"It's phenomenal," said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina. "We did not have any really long lines on Election Day. We did not have any problems at all. And the huge advantage of early voting is that you can correct problems on the spot. If someone has a problem with registration, you can take care of it right there so that you do not have a disaster on Election Day."
Dean said early voting in Minnesota would diminish the risk that a blizzard or other bad weather could hurt turnout. It also would spare voters from long lines on Election Day and take pressure off precinct election judges, many of whom put in 12- to 16-hour days.
It also would help address the biggest headache in the Coleman-Franken recount: absentee ballots.
Mansky said he believes many absentee voters are actually "early voters" who use absentee ballots to avoid going to the polls on Election Day.
By establishing a true early voting period and eliminating the requirement that absentees cite their reason for not going to the regular polls, lawmakers would reduce the potential for voter mistakes and rejected ballots, he said.
No-excuse absentee balloting has been pushed by the Legislature several times before, Mansky said, but failed because of opposition by the governor. Most recently, Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed such a bill in 2007.
"There needs to be some substantive changes to the absentee ballot process," said Cindy Reichert, elections director for the city of Minneapolis. "And we'd prefer to follow the early-vote model."
John Shockley, a professor of political science at Augsburg College, said legislators should also consider the option of establishing an instant runoff in elections as close as the Coleman-Franken race.
"It's hard on any system to make that kind of precise determination of exactly who won when it's that close," Shockley said. "In this case, since [Independence Party candidate] Dean Barkley got over 400,000 votes ... it'd be nice to know who those people would have chosen if they had to choose between Coleman and Franken."
Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, chairman of the House committee that oversees elections, said he'd be willing to consider any proposal. But if a change is expensive, it probably won't be approved this session, not with the state facing a $5.2 billion budget deficit through 2011.
"If there is a cost involved, the likelihood is, it is not going happen because we don't have the funds," he said.
Dean said there almost certainly would be costs tied to early voting -- for renting space and staffing polling places. But he said that would be offset by Election Day savings. With more days to vote, there would be less pressure at polling places, meaning election-day hours and staffs could be trimmed.
Consolidating driver and voter registration databases and the adoption of technological improvements -- such as allowing absentee voters to e-mail their ballots or track their votes online to make sure they are recorded -- also could save time and money, Mansky said.
"It's not out of the realm of possibility," he said. "All we need is the approval to go ahead and make it work."
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425
Sunday: The recount has revealed flaws in our election system.
Monday: Absentee voting has emerged as the biggest problem.
Tuesday: The 2004 Washington gubernatorial race bears striking similarities to Minnesota's recount.
Today: How to improve our voting system.