How many ways can voting go wrong?

  • Article by: PATRICIA LOPEZ and BOB VON STERNBERG , Star Tribune s t aff w r iters
  • Updated: November 20, 2008 - 11:16 PM

Some voters whose absentee ballots were rejected are stunned to find out what happened.

VOTE MARGIN FOR COLEMAN

+136

CHALLENGED BALLOTS

823

PERCENT COUNTED

46

If the hand recount of ballots to determine a winner in the U.S. Senate race has Minnesotans edgy, pity poor Robert Marvin.

The Roseville man was too ill to risk a long wait in line on Election Day, so he dutifully filled out an absentee ballot, only to discover Thursday that his vote never got counted.

Now his wife, Ruby Marvin, is hopping mad.

"Oh for cripes' sake," she said when a Star Tribune reporter told her that election officials said her husband's ballot had been rejected because he wasn't properly registered.

"We've lived here for five years and voted in every election," she said. "We've never had any problems before. This is crazy. Honest to Pete, there's no wonder they're having problems counting the ballots."

Robert Marvin's absentee ballot is just one of about 800 that were rejected in Ramsey County, where a court order Wednesday forced county officials to disclose the names and addresses of those whose votes were rejected.

With the margin separating Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and DFL challenger Al Franken remaining razor-thin, rejected absentees like Marvin may find themselves the new pivot point in an election where the rivals have gone after one another with everything they could muster.

Now, their sights may be trained on those hapless individuals who by sheer chance find that the simple act of voting has put them under a magnifying glass.

The Franken campaign started contacting voters on the Ramsey rejected absentee list the day it became public, asking them whether they would be willing to sign affidavits attesting that they believe their vote should be counted.

The campaigns are given only the voter's name, address and the reason the ballot was rejected.

No valid reason?

Laurel Meyer, 56, a retired federal employee from St. Paul, lost her vote because an election judge ruled that she hadn't given a valid reason for voting absentee. Meyer didn't know it had happened until she was called by the Franken campaign Wednesday night.

"They didn't say exactly why I'd been rejected, but asked if I'd be willing to sign an affidavit explaining what happened," she said Thursday. "Yeah, I would, because I want my vote to count."

Meyer said she voted early because she was afraid her difficulty walking could prove cumbersome on Election Day. "I can't imagine what went wrong," she said. "I'd changed addresses, so I filled out the information with my new address. I thought I was doing everything correctly, so it's very frustrating to hear it was rejected."

From his spot at Recount Central, a boxy office building outside downtown St. Paul, Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky said he worries about voters being asked the details of how they filled out their ballots.

"I wouldn't want Ben Golnik contacting me, or anyone else" he said, smiling as Golnik, a Republican operative and recount monitor, walked by on his way to observe ballot counts.

The absentee ballots rejected in Ramsey County were bounced for an array of reasons, but a handful of categories dominate.

By far the largest number, nearly a quarter, were rejected because there was no evidence the voter had registered. Second-ranked, accounting for more than one in eight, were ballots that lacked a voter's signature on the envelope.

Roughly one-tenth were placed in the reject pile because voters didn't provide a qualified witness at the time of voting, as required by law.

A slightly smaller number were rejected because voters filled out materials incompletely -- about the same proportion that weren't accepted because they were provided with the wrong materials by local election officials.

System worked, sometimes

In some cases, nothing went wrong.

Coleman supporter Jerald McElmury, of North St. Paul, wasn't surprised to be rejected. He didn't take any chances with his vote. He cast it -- twice. "I voted early," McElmury said, of his absentee ballot that was later rejected, "but drove my wife to the polls and decided I'd vote again, to make sure it was counted. I figured it would get flagged that I voted twice, so it worked exactly the way it was supposed to, for me."

Only a handful were rejected because voters subsequently voted in person on Election Day. A few ballots were invalidated because the voters didn't provide valid proof of their legal residence, lacked a valid reason for needing to vote absentee or returned their ballots to their local election office too late to be legally counted.

In four cases countywide, the ballots were rejected because the county's records showed the voter had died. Under state law, if a person who casts an absentee ballot dies before the election, the vote is not to be counted.

In Ramsey County, among rejected voters whose first names were identifiably male or female, 60 percent were women, compared with 53 percent of all voters statewide. Female voters favored Franken, according to exit polls. On the other hand, 79 percent of rejected Ramsey voters hailed from suburbs, which tend to be stronger for Republicans.

Tales of votes gone awry are not limited to Ramsey. They'll play out across the state as counties begin to release the rolls of their rejectees.

But for the scrutiny over the tightest Senate race in the country, most would have remained blissfully ignorant that their vote was cast aside.

In Clara City, Lorraine De Grote, 64, learned her vote was rejected.

"What do you mean my vote didn't count?" a startled De Grote said when contacted by a reporter. "We always vote."

De Grote said she and her husband had voted absentee for years in Colorado and decided to do the same when they moved here. De Grote's ballot was rejected because it lacked a signature on the envelope. Her husband's, apparently, was accepted, because his name did not turn up as one of the 15 voters whose absentee ballots were rejected in Chippewa County.

"That doesn't make sense," De Grote said. "We sat down together and filled them out and did it the same way."

De Grote, who voted for Coleman, said that now she's wondering, "If my vote didn't get counted, how many others didn't get counted?"

plopez@startribune.com • 651-222-1288 vonste@startribune.com • 612-673-7184

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