Minnesota Senate race down to a handful of votes...and counting

Neck-and-neck US Senate race in Minnesota, down to a handful of votes, will require a recount.

Jim Mone/AP
To the wire: Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken (not shown) fought an expensive, acrimonious battle.

In the end, there wasn’t much comedy in Al Franken’s run for the US Senate.

The former “Saturday Night Live” performer and writer campaigned in Minnesota more as a policy wonk than a humorist, in a widely watched and excruciatingly close race that will draw attention until the final results of a recount are known.

Norm Coleman, the Republican incumbent, currently leads by just 221 votes out of nearly 3 million votes cast, a razor-thin margin that has been fluctuating daily and will generate an automatic recount when the tally is made official on Nov. 18.

It’s one twist in a campaign that has drawn national interest from the beginning, pitting a comedian against a lapsed Democrat, who together set campaign spending records for a congressional race and earned criticism for harsh, negative ads.

“‘Minnesota nice’ has kind of been put into the trash can of history,” says Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. “Recounts are by their nature acrimonious, and Minnesota is starting what is naturally an acrimonious process at what is already a high baseline level of acrimony.”

Whatever the moods of the campaigns and the stakes involved, the process now is straightforward. Precincts are double- and triple-checking the results, correcting typos or human errors, and a tally is likely to be made official on Nov. 18 by the state canvassing board. At that point, a recount will automatically be ordered because the margin of difference is within one-half of 1 percent.

Such a recount may take about a month, says Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, as equipment and numbers are checked to make sure every eligible ballot has been gathered and as each ballot is visually inspected while representatives from the campaigns watch.

“The process of humans creating errors is the same wherever you are on the planet,” says Secretary Ritchie, noting that the state’s optical scan machines are highly accurate and make it easy to recount. “We’ve built a system that people trust, and that reputation includes being able to administer very large recounts very accurately, and put transparency and accuracy as a top priority in the system.”

Senator Coleman, the former Democratic mayor of St. Paul who turned Republican and won his Senate seat in 2002 in another tightly contested campaign, in which his opponent Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash 11 days before the election, has already claimed victory and urged Mr. Franken to forgo the recount.

But in the first few days since the election, the tally has changed often, with Coleman’s lead of 725 at the outset shrinking and rising. At one point, Franken’s votes jumped by 100 when it was discovered that a township election official had accidentally entered 24 for Franken instead of 124.
Discovering those sorts of human errors in the next few days may offer more hope for a changed result than the recount itself. “Once the results are official, then the chances of this being overturned decline,” says Professor Jacobs. “This is not Florida or Ohio. This process doesn’t have a whole lot of error.”

In addition to the fluctuations until an official count is approved, says Jacabs, there will need to be a review of why some absentee ballots weren’t counted – another area that could offer hope for Franken.

Recent recounts in Minnesota haven’t change the numbers much: A recount this fall in a judicial primary ended up changing the final margin by just seven, out of about 400,000 votes cast, says Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College.

Still, elections have been overturned here. In 2006, the outcome in a county attorney race changed after a recount gave the challenger an 88-vote edge. In 1962, the Minnesota governor’s race hinged on just 91 votes, out of 1.3 million cast, with a 139-day recount.

In some ways, what’s striking in this race is that it is so close. Democrat Barack Obama carried Minnesota by more than 10 percentage points, but many Obama supporters split their ballot to support Coleman or, in some cases, Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley, who got 15 percent of the vote.

Part of the problem, say critics, was Franken himself, and the treasure trove of ammunition his career as a writer and comedian gave Coleman – including a raunchy Playboy column, comments portrayed as anti-Catholic, partisan books such as “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot,” and the discovery that he hadn’t paid taxes in a number of states.
“A lot of Democrats could have won the seat, since they wouldn’t have his baggage,” says Professor Schier. Franken’s, he says, “is an edgy, partisan, and ideological humor, and that was the problem with it.”

“He tried to be very grave, tried to get away from what he spent his lifetime doing, and that’s hard to do,” says Schier.

Meanwhile, Franken and Coleman spent more than $30 million on the race; with party committee spending factored in, the final tally may rise to more than $50 million, by far the most expensive in history.

Both candidates were criticized for their barrage of attack ads, with Franken portraying Coleman as a Bush acolyte and sleazy senator, and Coleman harping on Franken’s raunchy humor, satirical rants, and unpaid taxes.

The negativity in both campaigns turned off voters, according to the polls.

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