It feels odd -- and disconcerting -- that on the day after the new president proclaimed that "unity of purpose" must now overtake political "conflict and discord" in America, a Minnesota court was hearing arguments about the still-unfinished U.S. Senate election. The agonizingly close Franken-Coleman race remains unselttled, and isn't improving with age.
Disgust with the prolonged post-election phase of this contest has stirred several proposals for change in the law that governs how Minnesotans decide close elections. Among them: abandon recounts in favor of runoff elections, of either the "instant" or back-to-the-polls variety. Stripping a multi-candidate contest down to two contenders in a runoff round has a good deal to recommend it. It would produce a winner with the backing of a voting majority, not just a plurality. Do it the "instant" way, and more campaign civility could also result.
But those who think that a runoff election would have prevented the situation Norm Coleman and Al Franken have fallen into may be overlooking one fact: The results of a two-way runoff can still be very close. In a politically competitive state like Minnesota, close elections are recurring phenomena. Each election produces a few two-way legislative races that were close enough to trigger an automatic recount under state law. In 2008, two state House and one state Senate race were subjects of a second, by-hand tally. Each of them involved only two candidates.
If close statewide races are to be settled by runoff rather than recount, what's to be done if the runoff is also very close? Summon voters back for yet another vote? (The very thought brings back painful memories of a high school basketball tournament that my team lost, after five overtimes. I was hoarse for three days.) No matter the type of election -- primary, general or runoff -- the result could be a margin closer than voting machines can accurately determine. The only way to get a more accurate count is to do what the Canvassing Board and local officials did in November and December: carefully, openly, painstakingly examine and count the ballots, one at a time.