Accidents Will Happen

I demand a recount!

I can say, with absolute certainty, that the 430 people who voted in the U.S. Senate race in Ward 1, Precinct 14 of Ramsey County, did not have their ballots counted accurately.

How do I know this? Because I counted them. Let me explain.

I volunteered to spend 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. on election night counting the supplemental Senate ballots that could not be electronically tabulated. I wasn't expecting too much excitement. We all know that the inability to properly tabulate ballots is largely a Southern phenomenon--registered voters turned away in Arkansas, votes attributed to the wrong party in Georgia, voting machines rejecting ballots in Texas, and then, of course, there's Florida, where it seems the only way to ensure a fair election is to enforce martial law. Here in Minnesota, our only problem is long lines, because we're such gosh-darn good citizens.

My preparation for election night was a 45-minute orientation session at the Ramsey County Courthouse on the Saturday before Election Day. Joe Mansky, who oversees elections in Ramsey County, briefly instructed about 200 recruits (mostly county employees) on vote-counting methodology: Sort by candidate, bundle in piles of 25, then count the bundles. It seemed simple enough to me, but apparently not to others. The assembled vote counters hurled question after question after question at Mansky. One elderly gentleman at the front of the room seemed particularly befuddled by the process. He was either a) completely daft and should not have been allowed anywhere near a ballot box or b) extremely lonely.

I was assigned to tabulate votes at the Mt. Airy Homes housing project. There were five election judges present when I arrived at 7:30 p.m. They had been there since 6:00 a.m.--and looked it. The chief judge was a huge sweat-stained man whose pants would fall down every time he stood up. I was soon joined by two other people--a county employee, and a recent Illinois transplant and Mondale partisan--recruited for the hand tabulations.

Despite all the hand-wringing about long lines at polling places, traffic at Mt. Airy was sparse: Perhaps 10 people voted in the last half-hour before the polls closed. Then the counting began.

The Senate ballots were collected in a sealed white cardboard box. My two cohorts and I began scooping the pieces of paper out and sorting them by candidate. At some point during this process, one of the election judges--a man wearing headphones and a black guayabera who claimed to have cast the lone vote for Constitution Party candidate Miro Drago Kovatchevich in the precinct--handed us another batch of ballots. In retrospect perhaps we should have questioned him about the origin of these additional ballots, but we simply assumed that the election judges knew what they were doing.

When the ballots had all been sorted, counted, recounted, and paper-clipped in stacks of 25, this was the breakdown: Mondale 298, Norm Coleman 122. An additional 21 votes were split between various other candidates (or simply left blank). That's a total of 441 votes for Senate. Unfortunately, according to the roster of voters, there should have been only 430 ballots.

I'm not exactly clear how this deduction was made, but it eventually became clear what had happened: The headphoned Kovatchevich partisan had mistakenly handed us a pile of "spoiled" ballots. These were ballots on which people had filled in the circle for the wrong candidate, realized their mistake, and then requested and received a new ballot. They were not supposed to be included in the vote total. Unfortunately these spoiled ballots had not been marked in any distinguishing way and were now hopelessly mixed in with the other 430 slips of paper.

At this point we were all flummoxed as to the proper course of action. I jokingly suggested that we put all the ballots back in the box, shake it up, and pick out 11 slips of paper at random.

Finally a call was placed to Ramsey County election headquarters. I'm not sure who was spoken to exactly, but we eventually received a directive: Put all the ballots back in the box, shake it up, and pick out 11 slips of paper at random. They weren't joking. And that's exactly what we did.

Norman didn't fare well in the lottery: He lost six votes to Walter's four. (Perhaps a recount isn't necessary after all.)

We also managed to insult the dead. Wellstone's only write-in vote was fished out of the box--a 100 percent drop in support for the late senator. So if you live in Ward 1, Precinct 14 in Ramsey County, and you wrote in Paul Wellstone for Senate, guess what? Your vote didn't count. Or actually your vote was changed to support another candidate. Sorry about that! Better luck next election.

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