Lori Sturdevant: Thoughts the Senate ruling leaves behind

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT
  • Star Tribune
  • July 4, 2009 - 1:40 PM

On big stories -- say, the end of an eight-month dispute over the outcome of a U.S. Senate election -- columnists are the journalistic cleanup crew. As a momentous week in Minnesota politics came to a close, I swept up these notes:

DFL state chair Brian Melendez had the right order of priorities when he revved up a Wednesday victory rally for Al Franken with two pieces of news. The fact that Franken unseated Republican Norm Coleman was Melendez's second point. The first: "Our election system works in Minnesota."

That wave of relief that spread over the state Tuesday afternoon? My sense is that the election system's vindication by a unanimous Minnesota Supreme Court was a big part of it. Had the ruling been divided or had it gone the other way, it would have gouged a big chunk out of the credibility of something that's foundational to self-governance in these parts.

Those who were still hollering about a "stolen election" at week's end were the ones whose credibility looks pitted. The thoughtful Republicans I heard from said they felt disappointed, but not cheated.

They also whispered that Coleman had been outlawyered by the Franken legal team, particularly on the matter of absentee ballots. I'd counter that it's easier for election lawyers to look good when their candidate got the most legally cast votes. And the way absentee ballots were running, there's a good chance that if more botched ones had been opened, as Coleman wanted, Franken's lead would have swelled beyond the final 312 votes.

Sturdy as American democracy appears, it is very dependent on a weak spot in human nature -- the ability to be a good loser. By swiftly, graciously and unambiguously conceding defeat Tuesday, Coleman did democracy a good turn.

On some level, the anxiety that has surrounded this hung-up election for eight months was fear of what might happen if Coleman refused to yield to the numbers. By conceding when and how he did, Coleman spared Minnesota from having to find out.

He also gave himself the option of running again another day.

For governor, in 2010? Coleman, a career politician, has to be seriously considering it. He'll be 60 in August. That's a little young to claim elder statesman status.

Part of what Coleman might consider is this history: The last Minnesota pols to go through a protracted recount never recovered politically. One can claim special circumstances for both the 1962 loser, GOP Gov. Elmer Andersen (a liberal whose party was moving right) and winner, DFL Gov. Karl Rolvaag (alcoholism and a party drifting to the left). But the bottom line: Andersen's comeback try and Rolvaag's reelection bid both failed in 1966.

That history lesson is also relevant to Franken. He goes to Washington with a conflicting imperative. To be effective, he has to spend time building relationships in the Senate. But he emerges from the state's longest campaign with steep negatives in the polls. He has to keep courting Minnesotans, too.

Franken's best assets in performing that balancing act are the two women who, fittingly, escorted him to the podium at Wednesday's rally. Franni Franken's natural warmth is a friend-magnet for her husband. And in only her third year in office, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is wise in the ways of winning over both senators and voters.

Klobuchar's advice to Franken: Focus on health care reform, both at home and in D.C. "That's the No. 1 issue on people's minds," she said.

''The Minnesota judiciary looks great today," election law expert Edward Foley said from his scholarly perch at Ohio State University. Foley said all the judges who touched this thing -- the four on the Canvassing Board, three on the trial bench, and the five Supremes -- exhibited "judicial virtue." That's a willingness to do the right thing that went beyond their initial impulses or the bare requirement of the law.

He also hailed Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who "acquitted himself with great statesmanship."

But before we wrench our necks patting ourselves on the back, Foley suggests that Minnesotans should ask two questions.

One: Is Minnesota's system up to the time pressure it would face should the state ever be crucial in a hung-up presidential race?

It would have to work much faster, Foley said. One way to expedite it would be to authorize the Canvassing Board, on which four of the five members are judges, to do more than administer a recount. If they could also gather evidence and rule on matters of dispute, the trial court step could be eliminated. Appeals would go straight to the Supreme Court.

Two: The variation between counties in ballot processing that Coleman vs. Franken turned up was not deemed unconstitutional. But is it acceptable? It shouldn't be, Foley said. A bill that would have corrected many of those problems was felled by a gubernatorial veto in May.

"Now that this case has been resolved, couldn't the moment of goodwill be captured to get some bipartisan election reform?" Foley asked.

You'd think it could.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at

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