Minnesota is becoming to 2008 politics what Florida was in 2000 or Washington State in 2004 -- a real mess. The outcome will determine whether Democrats get 58 members of the U.S. Senate, giving them an effective filibuster-proof vote on many issues.
When voters woke up on Wednesday morning after the election, Senator Norm Coleman led Al Franken by what seemed like a relatively comfortable 725 votes. By Wednesday night, that lead had shrunk to 477. By Thursday night, it was down to 336. By Friday, it was 239. Late Sunday night, the difference had gone down to just 221 -- a total change over 4 days of 504 votes.
Amazingly, this all has occurred even though there hasn’t even yet been a recount. Just local election officials correcting claimed typos in how the numbers were reported. Counties will certify their results today, and their final results will be sent to the secretary of state by Friday. The actual recount won’t even start until November 19.
Correcting these typos was claimed to add 435 votes to Franken and take 69 votes from Coleman. Corrections were posted in other races, but they were only a fraction of those for the Senate. The Senate gains for Franken were 2.5 times the gain for Obama in the presidential race count, 2.9 times the total gain that Democrats got across all Minnesota congressional races, and 5 times the net loss that Democrats suffered for all state House races.
Virtually all of Franken’s new votes came from just three out of 4130 precincts, and almost half the gain (246 votes) occurred in one precinct -- Two Harbors, a small town north of Duluth along Lake Superior -- a heavily Democratic precinct where Obama received 64 percent of the vote. None of the other races had any changes in their vote totals in that precinct.
To put this change in perspective, that single precinct’s corrections accounted for a significantly larger net swing in votes between the parties than occurred for all the precincts in the entire state for the presidential, congressional, or state house races.
The two other precincts (Mountain Iron in St. Louis county and Partridge Township in Pine county) accounted for another 100 votes each. The change in each precinct was half as large as the pickup for Obama from the corrections for the entire state.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune attributed these types of mistakes to “exhausted county officials,” and that indeed might be true, but the sizes of the errors in these three precincts are surprisingly large.
Indeed, the 504 total new votes for Franken from all the precincts is greater than adding together all the changes for all the precincts in the entire state for the presidential, congressional, and state house races combined (a sum of 482). It was also true that precincts that gave Obama a larger percentage of the vote were statistically more likely to make a correction that helped Franken.
The recent Washington State 2006 gubernatorial recount is probably most famous for the discovery of ballots in heavily Democratic areas that had somehow missed being counted the first and even second time around. Minnesota is already copying that, though thus far on a much smaller scale, with 32 absentee ballots being discovered in Democratic Hennepin County after all the votes had already been counted. When those votes are added in, they seemed destined to cut Coleman's lead further.
Indeed, it is probably through the discovery of new votes that Franken has his best shot of picking up new votes. Despite the press pushing a possible replay of election judges divining voters’ intentions by looking at “hanging chads” to see if voters meant to punch a hole, that shouldn’t be an issue in Minnesota. The reason is simple: optical scan vote counting machines return ballots to voters if no vote is recorded for a contested race.
The Associated Press piece with the title “Most Minn. Senate ‘undervotes’ are from Obama turf” misinformed readers about what undervotes really imply. The Minneapolis Star Tribune headline similarly claimed "An analysis of ballots that had a vote for president but no vote for U.S. senator could have recount implications."
Voters themselves insert their ballot into the machine that reads and records their votes, and if the machine finds that a vote isn’t recorded, voters can either mark the race that they forgot to mark or didn’t mark clearly. Or if voters “overvoted” and accidentally marked too many candidates, voters can also get a fresh ballot. There should be no role to divine voters’ intentions. If a voter wanted a vote recorded for a particular race, the machine tells him whether his vote in all the races was counted.
But voters also have the right not to vote in particular races. In this election, 0.4 percent of Minnesotans didn’t want to vote for president. The number for the Senate race was only slightly higher at 0.8 percent. For congressional and state House races, the rates were 3 and 3.5 percent.
This pattern of fewer people voting in less important elections has been observed as long as people have studied elections. There are always at least a few people who don’t vote for even the most closely contested races at the top of the ballot and fewer people follow and vote for races the farther down the ballot that you go. But this is not evidence of mistakes, quite the contrary.
With ACORN filing more than 43,000 registration forms this year, 75 percent of all new registrations in the state, Minnesota was facing vote fraud problems even before the election. Even a small percentage of those registrations resulting in fraudulent votes could tip this election.
To many, it just seems like too much of a coincidence that Minnesota's one tight race just happens to be the race with the most "corrected" votes by far. But the real travesty will be to start letting election officials divine voter's intent. If you want to discourage people from voting, election fraud is one sure way of doing it.
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