While touting the accuracy and transparency of the Senate recount, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie is also proud of doing it for a bargain price.

He says an earlier plan called for statewide recounts to be done centrally, with state troopers transporting ballots to St. Paul and the counting supervised by secretary of state officials, a method that would have cost about $2 million.

Ritchie opted instead to cut costs with a new approach -- contracting with local officials statewide to count their own ballots, saving 90 percent of that price tag.

"We turned the old process on its head," Ritchie said in an interview with the Star Tribune. "We said the ballots would stay in local control."

But now, the claim that local officials used inconsistent standards is a key argument in the court challenge Norm Coleman has filed.

Former Secretary of State Joan Growe, like Ritchie a DFLer, said she could make a case either way. The local approach Ritchie opted for, she said, "clearly would be less expensive, and cost is a factor."

On the other hand, she said, a centralized location might be easier for observers and counters. "Everyone would all get the same instructions at the same time and you could be a little more consistent," she said. "But there's always the human factor. You're dealing with equipment and human beings. Neither is perfect and neither will ever be perfect."

The administrative recount itself is a rather recent Minnesota phenomenon. Growe said that during her tenure, contested statewide and congressional races went straight to court. It wasn't until the 2000 Florida recount debacle of Bush vs. Gore that Minnesota opted for an automatic recount triggered by a winning margin of less than 1/2 of 1 percent.

Different standards?

Mary Kiffmeyer, a Republican who succeeded Growe in 1999 and was defeated by Ritchie in 2006, said the decentralized approach may inadvertently have paved the way for an allegation a three-judge panel soon will consider: the varying standards applied by local officials who struggled to interpret state Supreme Court rulings on which absentee ballots to allow.

Kiffmeyer, while not faulting the Canvassing Board, said the administrative recount became muddied by legal appeals and "you wound up with a result that has a cloud hanging over it and now this will go to court anyway."

Ritchie said he would defend the decision to keep ballots in their localities. Local election officials, he said, did "an amazing job" withstanding hurricane-force pressures from both sides in a process so vitriolic that his own staff has had to contend with verbal abuse and death threats.

But he does have his own concerns about the nation's most-contested Senate race.

"When they [the state Supreme Court] gave the campaigns the right to veto properly cast ballots, I thought 'Golly, a whole lot of people whose votes were valid probably won't get their votes counted. Turns out it was about 400 who got disenfranchised."

Ritchie is referring to 400 ballots deemed improperly rejected by local officials, but blocked by one of the campaigns using the veto power conferred by the Supreme Court. "Why would the Supreme Court give the campaigns this right?" Ritchie asked rhetorically. "I don't think the Supreme Court provided any rationale for it, but the two dissenters provided some fairly clear expression of concern."

Ritchie said his office has sent out letters to the 400 voters, informing them that their votes were excluded and that they can choose to take legal action on their own.

More troubling for Ritchie is his suspicion that campaigns used sophisticated databases to challenge individual ballots based on a notion of how that individual voted.

The 400 ballots remained in their secrecy envelopes throughout the process, Ritchie said, but the names of the absentee voters were a matter of public record. Ritchie noted that the "campaigns spent millions ID'ing voters" before the election. When decisions were made on those ballots, he said, "you had these (campaign) people sitting there, reviewing with laptops. I think people were concerned that information was being cross-tabbed and ballots purposefully eliminated."

Spokesman for both campaigns denied that they attempted to exclude ballots based on their projection of the voter's likely candidate preference.

Ritchie also counts himself among the growing chorus of officials who say the state's absentee ballot system is antiquated and cumbersome.

Overall, more than 10,000 absentee ballots were rejected for voter error.

Ballot from Baghdad

Among the more wrenching, Ritchie said, was a Minnesota soldier stationed in Baghdad whose ballot came in a day late. "That was heartbreaking."

Growe said that while the recount went "surprisingly well," it points up the need for changes. The absentee error rate, she said, "is unacceptable." Growe said the complexity of the ballot leads to a large number of voter errors and mistakes on the part of election officials who cannot even begin to count absentees until the last mail delivery of what is already a very long election day.

Ritchie said that while there were some hiccups and on-the-fly interpretations along the way, 97 percent of the Canvassing Board's decisions were unanimous and agreed to by the campaigns at the time.

Now, Ritchie said, after two months as ringmaster in an endless circus of Flying Spaghetti Monster ballots and Christmas Eve court rulings, verbal brickbats and actual death threats, he and his staff are ready to step back.

"We'll meet data practices requests," Ritchie said, "but my role is done. This is really in the hands of three judges. We don't have anything to do with it."

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288