As soon as it became clear that the state is headed toward another round of water torture in the guise of an election recount, I knew I had to find Cindy Reichert, the former head of elections for Minneapolis.

Reichert, a longtime, hard-working and by all reports ethical public servant, is now in the elections department of Anoka County.

"Hi, Cindy," I said. "There is going to be another recount, and I want to look in the trunk of your car."

There was a brief pause, then a hearty laugh.

"You'll find the same thing as they did last time," Reichert said. "Nothing."

Reichert would really rather that I not bring this up again, but given the tenor of this year's election we need to be aware that in the next few weeks the 2010 version of Cindy Reichert will surface, as political operatives scrounging for stray votes point fingers at people who don't deserve it.

During the 2008 recount of the Norm Coleman-Al Franken mess, Coleman lawyer Fritz Knaak told reporters that Reichert had been giving a box of ballots a joy ride in the back of her car for several days. Gov. Tim Pawlenty repeated the claim on Fox News with a furrowed brow, and the car ride became the signature anecdote of conspiracy theorists everywhere.

The trouble is, it never happened.

Coleman's people eventually acknowledged it never happened, but a juicy myth, once set in motion, runs over facts like a freight train.

"It's followed me ever since," said Reichert, who graciously cut her accusers some slack. "Everyone was in such a tizzy at the time, but it was disappointing."

Well, gird yourself for more. As Tony Sutton, chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota put it, "This time it's personal."

It used to be in Minnesota that candidates slugged it out, shook hands, then got out the calculator. No, it wasn't always as civil as we like to remember, but there seemed to be a common feeling that elections in this state were basically fair.

Now, some have adopted the theme that a close election can only be lost if someone on the other side is a crook.

What happened?

"Well, the whole political climate and culture has changed," said Joan Growe, the longest-serving secretary of state (1975-1999) in Minnesota. "The statewide recount is relatively new. It had to be challenged by the loser, it wasn't automatic. Now they want to be aggressive and set a tone even if there isn't anything wrong."

Independent analysts still believe Minnesota elections are about as clean cut as a Sleepy Eye farm boy.

"People make mistakes and go to the wrong polling places, but we just have never had organized fraud in elections," said Growe, who believes the Legislature made changes after the Coleman-Franken recount that will make this one less painful.

I'm not so sure. With the one-party control of the Legislature and the governor's office at stake, both parties are equally capable of finding ghosts in the machine.

Which means the Vikings will now have to compete with the dazzling spectacle of live-streamed ballot counting and scintillating number-crunching from Mark Ritchie, pity his soul. Which means more weeks of disinformation and misdirection from politicos. Which means more people like Reichert might find themselves collateral damage. Reichert, though, has kept a sense of humor about it.

"I think just before I die I'll hide a box of ballots in my closet as a joke," she said. • 612-673-1702